I’ve read The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet by Becky Chambers twice now and I adored it both times. This made me nervous about reading the second book in the Wayfarers series, as I didn’t see how it could possibly live up to its predecessor. Luckily, two friends whom I trust posted positive reviews about it (Gaby and Ashleigh) so I was encouraged to finally pick it up.
A Closed and Common Orbit follows an almost entirely new set of characters who are going on very different journeys to those characters I met and loved in The Long Way. This concerned me at first, because I adored the characters in the first book and I didn’t want to leave them behind, but I think it was the right choice and it took me practically no time to fall in love with this set of characters. Now the characters from The Long Way can live on in my memory, without their story arcs being ruined or tainted. Some things are meant to end (take notes, JKR). In Common Orbit we follow two sets of characters. Lovelace is a newly rebooted Artificial Intelligence system who has been loaded into a “human” body kit. We follow her as she struggles to come to terms living inside a body that she is not designed for and understanding her place in this world. On alternating chapters we also meet 10-year-old Jane and Owl, whose story I will not go into that much detail about, as watching it unfold was a pure joy.
Just as in Common Orbit, I couldn’t help but grow attached to the characters that Chambers has created. I loved following Lovelace as she tries to navigate her way through the universe, whilst trapped inside her body kit. Lovelace’s claustrophobia and unhappiness were written with such intensity that I felt those emotions along with her. The times when she lashes out at those she is closest to, because they can’t understand what she is feeling no matter how hard they try, were particularly affecting. I related to her in these moments and completely empathised with the residual anger, resentment and guilt that followed these outbursts. My heart was filled with warmth every time we read about Jane and Owl. Their relationship with each other was tender, real, and it developed in the most natural way. I know that I am always fond of the found family trope, but it’s one of the most beautiful things to read about when done well. And Becky Chambers does it well.
One of the themes that really stood out to me in this book, was that of people trying to discover who they are. I think that this could be why it feels so relatable to read, despite being set in a world vastly different to my own. Reading about characters who are exploring themselves, their interests, their relationships, their body, and trying to find out how they fit into the world was something that I found incredibly engaging. I am always struggling with these issues, so it’s encouraging to read about others going through the same thing and figuring some of it out. It gave me a sense of hope and happiness, which is a wonderful thing to get out of a book.
Parts of the book were a little heavy-handed when it came to explorations of gender and sex. It was quite in-your-face and the explanations about how different species’ gender and sex systems worked often read more like an encyclopedia entry than part of a novel. There was also the unfortunate fact that when it came to those sapiens whose sexual characteristics changed over their lifespan, this always seemed to result in a change of gender for the sapien – so that their gender “matched” their sexual characteristics. It was as if Chambers wanted to break out of the gender binary, but couldn’t quite see how to do this. Each species still seemed to operate within the gender binary, despite her attempts to break out of it. I commend her attempts in this area and it’s refreshing to read a book where the author writes about life-forms who have varied gender and sex systems, but I think that she could have done this better.
Overall, this book brought me a profound feeling of comfort and happiness. I would highly recommend this series if you haven’t read it yet already, as it’s extremely wholesome. It provides a safe world in to which you can escape for a few hours. I’ll be making sure to check the third book (Record of a Spaceborn Few) out of the library once it’s released in paperback and I have hopes that that installation will charm me just as much as the first two books.