It has been almost two years since I read the first book in this series, and nearly a year since I bought books 2 and 3! I’m very glad Michael Cobley includes a brief synopsis of the first book; it helped with my terrible recall. The Orphaned Worlds is probably better than Seeds of Earth in terms of both story and organization. As with the first book, there were elements that made me want to dislike this book, but I just couldn’t. It’s unabashedly fun space opera with AI elements reminiscent of Iain M. Banks and complex, nefarious interstellar schemes reminiscent of John Scalzi. All in all, it’s a pretty good time. As usual, spoilers for the first book but not so much for this one.
There is no middle book syndrome here. The Orphaned Worlds gets to profit from all the groundwork the first book had to spend setting up. So Robert Horst is already on his intense mission “deep into hyperspace” for the Construct; Greg is still fighting a guerrilla war on Darien; Kao Chih soon has a chance to return to his people, and so on. Multiple storylines intersect, converging and diverging in interesting ways that remind us that this universe of Cobley’s making is incredibly intricate and interconnected. The Sendrukans’ and Brolturans’ presence in Darien has multiple levels, as we discover when Kuros receives a visit from a superior whose orders don’t quite make sense…. And then there is the race against time, with the Knight of the Legion of Avatars freed from its deep sea prison and slowly lumbering towards Darien and the warpwell it wants to use to free its masters.
This series reminds me a little of A Song of Ice and Fire, just because there are so many POV characters. Each chapter is titled with a character’s name, and it follows them for a little, before the next chapter jumps to another character. Cobley is a little shyer about killing off main characters—then again, compared to GRRM, who isn’t? A few characters get some development, but one of my critiques of this book would simply be that for all the plot that happens, the characters change precious little. Theo, Greg, Kao Chih, etc., spend too much time running around to stop and process the friends they are losing and the way the balance of power has shifted. Hopefully we get a lull in book 3 that will make up for it.
Characterization troubles aside, though, Cobley does a remarkable job of balancing the sheer number of subplots. I mentioned a handful of them above, and there are still more. It seems like there’s a subplot for everyone: millennia-old AI shenanigans, alien–human politics, human–human politics … it’s all here, and it’s all connected. So even while some of the plots (like Greg on Darien) didn’t hold my interest, and while I found others more confusing (I’m still not sure I understand this whole “levels of hyperspace” thing), there was still plenty for me to enjoy. I particularly liked it when the Roug showed up and kicked some Ezgaran ass just because those Ezgara were so cocky. Likewise, I love that despite the very powerful assistance many of our protagonists have, they come close to defeat several times.
As I mentioned in my review of the first book, Cobley doesn’t so much advance new ideas as recombine old ones. That’s still the case here. There are some great philosophical themes surrounding the nature of consciousness and selfhood, particularly when it comes to Horst’s journey, or Catriona’s relationship with Segrana. Cobley doesn’t manage to present these ideas in new or exciting ways that make me think a lot on them, but it was nice to see him develop them within the context of this story. The Orphaned Worlds reminds me a little of The Expanse in that it could be a good SyFy series: perhaps not the most groundbreaking use of science fiction, but a great “smart” form of entertainment.
At the end of the day, when a book this long keeps you turning pages, other complaints don’t matter: it’s a good read. Definitely going to pick up the third book more quickly than I did this one!