For those of you who haven’t read the first two books, first of all you probably should, but know that they aren’t sci-fi adventure books in the classic sense. They are slow burn character studies, for the most part. Interesting things do happen, but unlike a lot of sf, they aren’t driven by their plot. The first book does have the supposed backbone of the journey to the titular small and angry planet, but it’s really a series of interconnected stories about the crew on the Wayfarer, and they are the point, not the aliens or the journey or whatever (though there is some really cool stuff there). In the second one, which I have liked more and more the further I get away from it, and have even been contemplating raising my rating to five stars, the main arc is the parallel journeys of Pepper (by flashback) and Sidra to learn how to be people in the world. This third one has the least plot of all.
In the first two books, we learned of the Exodans, those humans who left Earth and the Sol system behind on a fleet of ships, intent on discovering a new place for humanity to live. What actually happened is that after hundreds of years, they had first contact with the Aeluons, and were eventually after a long period of debate, allowed to enter the Galactic Commons. Humans from the Sol system (who colonized Mars, the moon, Jupiter’s moons, etc) now mix equally with the Exodans in galactic society, who are more and more leaving their stationary fleet for planetside. So what this book is, is a portrait basically of Exodan life, and through it we get this lovely examination of humanity (because this is Becky Chambers’ thing).
We follow several characters that give us insight into different facets of Exodan life. We’ve got Tessa, who is Captain Ashby’s sister (from the first book), a young mother who has been a content Exodan all her life; Sawyer, an aimless and rather lost young man from planetside whose ancestors left the fleet several generations back; Eyas, a caretaker whose job it is to care for the fleet’s dead (a position that is so respected, she often feels isolated by only being seen as a symbol instead of a whole person); Isabel, an Archivist whose job is to preserve humanity’s history; and Kip, a sixteen year old kid who is embarrassed by the fleet and is experiencing an intense desire to leave it. We also get interlude sections where an alien (a Harmagian) cultural anthropologist (or, the alien version of that) has come to the fleet to study it. Her perspective ties the whole thing together.
The worldbuilding here is phenomenal. And it’s not just how the Exodans live that we learn about, but why, and Chambers always makes it relevant in a global sense, even as we’re learning about something so specific and made up. All of the characters struggle with questions. What is the purpose of a fleet designed to find a new home for humanity, after humanity has outgrown that need? How do you find purpose in a life with so many options? How do you balance the desire to remember the past with the desire to experience new things? How do you cope with change? And she really nails the ending, which brings the whole book into focus, and makes the slow to start nature of it make sense.
I really can’t recommend this series enough.