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Double Scots

I know, it’s a terrible title. And it took me ages to come up with it. But since it’s reasonably descriptive of the contents of this post, I’m sticking with it.

The two Scots in question are Michael Cobley and Gary Gibson, both of whom have had New Space Opera novels published this year. Cobley’s The Orphaned Worlds is the second in his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, and Gibson’s Empire of Light is the final book in his Shoal Sequence.

Last year, I said of Seeds of Earth, the first book of Michael Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire trilogy (see here), that it was “a pure hit of the purest space opera”. The Orphaned Worlds is no different.

The Sendrukan and Broltruan forces occupying the lost human colony of Darien have tightened their grip, and the freedom fighters have moved into the various historical Uvovo strongholds. Meanwhile, Earthsphere ambassador Robert Horst is hunting through the many levels of hyperspace to find the Godhead, a powerful machine intelligence. Theo Karlsson has been captured by Ezgara mercenaries – who are from another lost human colony – but these are good Ezgara mercenaries, and they discover something shocking in their history. Julia Bryce and the other Enhanced have been captured by a mercenary working for the Spiral Prophecy, who have sent a vast invasion force to Darien. The Knight of the Legion of Avatars has reached Darien, and sets about taking over the warpwell so he can free the millions of Avatars imprisoned in the hyperspace Abyss. And Kao Chih learns what happened to his home world – the third lost human colony – after his grandparents left…

The Orphaned Worlds is, in fact, not an easy book to summarise. There’s a lot going on in it. Middle books of trilogies are notoriously difficult, and too often feel like extended set-ups for the grand climax in book three. Cobley manages to avoid this trap by ensuring there’s always plenty of action, and by doling out small revelations which explain more and more of the trilogy’s story-arc. The Orphaned Worlds also features an admirably diverse cast. Cobley’s protagonists are engaging characters and he handles his various nationalities with skill. He has a good eye for describing scenery, and there’s a level of detail in the prose which makes every facet of his universe clear.

Having said that, the book’s not without some faults. In Seeds of Earth, I thought Cobley had “over-egged” his universe, and so too in The Orphaned Worlds – it feels too rich for the trilogy. Sometimes, in fact, it seems it should belong to a role-playing game, and so should be explored over several years through scenarios and campaigns and sourcebooks. The profusion of alien races and planets also means there are a lot of made-up names in the book. The Orphaned Worlds walks a tight-rope over a chasm of smeerp – mostly successfully; although there’s the odd section where it feels as though it might fall. But Cobley certainly deserves a slap for using the word “youngling”.

Gary Gibson’s Empire of Light is the third book in his Shoal Sequence trilogy, and neatly wraps up its galaxy-spanning story. Like the earlier books in the trilogy, Empire of Light often reads like a long sequence of special effects shots. Admittedly, they’re pretty impressive special effects – there aren’t many books, for example, in which wars are fought by exploding the stars around which the enemy’s planets orbit…

Dakota Merrick finds the Maker, creator of the caches which gave the various races of the galaxy faster-than-light travel, and discovers what it is. She also learns of the Mos Hadroch, a weapon which could be used to defeat the Emissaries. She joins up with Lucas Corso, who’s having trouble with his political rivals on the Freehold colony on Redstone. In a stolen frigate, they, and a handful of others, travel across the galaxy to the Perseus Arm to strike a blow against the Emissaries with the Mos Hadroch. But someone aboard the frigate is not exactly what he appears to be…

The bulk of Empire of Light‘s story is taken up with that long flight to the Perseus Arm and the goings-on aboard the Mjollnir. Much of the Long War – the exploding suns – takes place off-stage. Which is a bit of a shame, as the Emissaries were very funny. Nor do the Zarbi-like aliens of Nova War, the Bandati, figure much in Empire of Light. Given the enormous canvas of the trilogy’s story-arc, it makes for a curiously claustrophobic story. As a result, the the book’s resolution feels a little anticlimactic because its impact is chiefly focused on Merrick, Corso and the others.

There’s still much to like in Empire of Light. Those special effects shots, for one. Gibson also manages a nice demolition of the politics of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Trooper. On Redstone, only veterans have the franchise, and everyone has the right to determine the outcome of a dispute using a duel. Gibson uses Corso to point out how ineffective and corrupt such a regime would be. The sheer scale of Empire of Light‘s story also impresses. Where Cobley sets his story in a galaxy-sized “world” populated with hundreds and thousands of alien civilisations, Gibson’s universe feels more like a real galaxy – with vast empty spaces, and a history stretching back billions of years. There’s a sense of great antiquity to Gibson’s universe, more so than there is to Cobley’s. Yet Gibson still manages to keep his plot firmly focused on his characters.

The two books are excellent examples of the current state of British New Space Opera. Gibson provides excellent sfx, and has a better handle on the size and age of the universe. Cobley’s prose is more detailed, and his ability to evoke place is better. Cobley also has the more diverse cast, which he handles well. On the other hand, Gibson’s aliens feel like they belong in a New Space Opera novel, whereas Cobley’s occasionally feel like they should be in a RPG. Nonetheless, both trilogies – even though Cobley’s is as yet unfinished – are definitely worth reading.


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Pure Space Opera – Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley

I wanted to avoid reviewing books by friends on this blog because, well, it might cost me too much in beers if I ever ran into them at a con… Then I thought, what the hell. It’s not like my friends are crap writers. So I have implemented a policy change. And the first book to benefit from this is:

Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley.

This is the first novel of a space opera trilogy called Humanity’s Fire. I’d read in several reviews that the book was slow to start but picked up about halfway through. I’d interpreted this to mean there was a steep learning curve. It’s not uncommon in space opera. The author has to lay out their universe and it’s usually a big universe.

But those reviews were quite correct. Cobley’s universe is perhaps not that large – although he’s certainly thrown everything he can think of into it. Seeds of Earth is very much heartland space opera – in fact, it sits right on the bullseye. While this does mean there’s a lot of set-up to plough through – including a somewhat excessive use of italicised alien vocabulary – it’s not just that which accounts for the initial slow pace. However, once the villains appear on the scene the story shifts into high gear, and the book becomes a real page-turner.

Having said that, I suspect Cobley has slightly over-egged his universe. While there are definitely some interesting ideas in there – a hyperspace consisting of strata of dead universes, for example – I personally prefer stories which aren’t so inclusive and which are a little more adventurous with sf tropes.

Which is not to say Seeds of Earth is a bad book. On the contrary, it’s very good. It’s well-constructed and well-written. It’s a pure hit of the purest space opera.

So go read it.

I’m looking forward to the sequel.

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