You guys, these books. I really, really liked The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It made me deliriously happy with the intricate character profiles, the worldbuilding, the way I felt like I was among friends almost from the start of the story. I didn’t want to leave the Wayfarer. And I knew the second book — this book — was going to do that, leave the Wayfarer, and journey off with Pepper and Blue to Port Coriol. And I’d met them already and they seemed really nice — friends of Jenks and Kizzy have to be good people — but I was going to miss the crew, and I didn’t know if hanging around with just two people on one planet was going to be as fun as hanging around with nine people on a tunneling ship.
But I shouldn’t have worried, because Becky Chambers is so good at this. So, spoilers ahead if you haven’t read The Long Way yet (what are you doing — go read it).
Pepper and Blue are joined by Lovelace, who soon renames herself Sidra. Sidra is the AI who replaced Lovey, the Wayfarer‘s AI who died in the attack at the end of The Long Way. Before she died, Lovey had planned along with Jenks to download her consciousness into a body kit in order to be able to be with him the way they both wanted. Now that she’s gone, Sidra has elected to inhabit the body instead, so that the ship can have a new AI and Jenks can heal. So Sidra goes to live with Pepper and Blue on Port Coriol, in a highly illegal body kit that she is deeply unsure about, to try and create some kind of life for herself away from everything she’s ever been programmed to do.
This story is interspersed with the story of the young Pepper, who grew up in a factory as one of many cloned human laborers overseen by robots. Her entire job was to clean and sort and repair tech, and she never knew anything else until the day she escaped. The story of her life before and after the factory is what makes her who she is, and it unfolds over almost ten years in near solitude.
There are a few other characters in the story, but you can count the main ones on one hand. This is in some ways a much smaller story than the one told by the first book, but it is a beautiful meditation on family and belonging and finding your purpose. Sidra struggles to find peace in a body she didn’t ask for. Pepper struggles to forge a life for herself after growing up in a society so rigid that she is terrified to put a foot wrong — she has to learn everything that isn’t tech.
There is also Tak, an Aeluon tattoo artist and Sidra’s only friend outside of Blue and Pepper. Chambers gives us more about Aeluon physiology in this book, including the four genders (those who produce eggs, those who fertilize eggs, those who cyclically switch between the two roles, and those who do neither role). Tak is a shon, one of those who switch roles, and accordingly Tak switches gender pronouns depending on where they are in their cycle — he, she, or xe for male, female, or in between. These changes are handled as matter of fact without any great fanfare — at one point Tak talks about how she realized she was a shon, and how her father got her the hormone implants so she was able to cycle properly. Passages like this, and times when Tak is referred to differently between chapters just as a matter of course because that’s what Aelulon biology is, are just really nice in their total normality.
As before, there’s not a whole whole lot that happens in this book. There’s some action, but there’s a lot that’s internal and interpersonal. It’s a very intimate, very lovely story about how and why we choose our people, and how what we do for each other can mean everything. Now, I don’t know what a common orbit is — I’m not an astronomer and I couldn’t find the term on Google. But a closed orbit is one in which the orbiting body will eventually return to the same angular position in which it began. And sometimes the thought of that is enough to choke you, but a lot of times the thought of that is all that keeps you going, because that is home.