This is the book that introduced many of us to John Barnes. For many of us, it is still our favorite. A lot of very "Barnesian" ideas are established here. For one thing, all of his books except for Mother of Storms and One for the Morning Glory are written in the first person. What probably hooked me more than anything else on his writing is that he chose to make his debut with a book written from the first person of a 13 year old girl. Personally, I can't think of any demographic that I have LESS in common with than teenage girls. And I certainly wouldn't attempt to write a novel from that perspective. Barnes has an incredible gift for putting himself in his characters' shoes and telling it from their point of view. Regardless of how radically different their personalities are, they always seem authentic. How the different personalities of Melpomene Murray, Currie Curran, Joshua Ali Quare and Giraut Leone could all spring from the same mind and all feel unique and authentic is a trick I'll certainly never master. (I guess that's why he's published and I'm not.) Comparisons to Ender's Game are appropriate. Even though Melpomene and Ender have very little in common, they are both written by superb authors who managed to authentically empathize with children.
Another precedent here is that he doesn't pull any punches. Melpomene is a 13 year old girl. Well, she's gonna face situations that a 13 year old girl would likely face, and she's going to deal with them the way a 13 year old girl realistically would. That means it might make you occasionally blush. (However, despite a certain reviewer's knee-jerk reaction, this is NOT a book about adolescent girls describing their orgasms.) But don't worry - when you graduate to "Kaleidescope Century", you'll get the same treatment from the point of view of a mercenary assassin. And yes, that book will SCARE you. But this is what makes his writing so powerful and authentic.
You're also going to find that John Barnes NEVER writes 1 dimensional characters, nor does he ever let them get the easy answers. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys" in his books. Well... OK, Kaleidescope Century has some pretty unredeemable people, and Phil and Monica from Candle are archetypal saints - but I suspect he's saving them for a full treatment in another novel. But on the whole, every character is going to do something you wouldn't be proud of at some point. And every character has some noble spark of humanity. You can't just divide up his characters into column A - the ones I don't like, and column B - the ones I like. Nope. Fortunately, they actually have personalities and relationships.
But Barnes's greatest strength is his world-building skill. He could have just said - in 2026, people will live on colonized asteroids because Earth is over-populated, and terraforming of Mars has begun. But.... no. The whole back story behind why the Flying Dutchman exists and why the people there live the way they do is extrapolated back to the end of the 20th century. At the end of the book, you know that all of the events here are part of a very logical flow of ideas in a very thoroughly thought out history. Nothing feels really contrived. At the same time - you know that you haven't heard the whole story yet. While Melpomene gives us considerable background on the situation on earth, ultimately that is not the story she was trying to tell. Two books later (Kaleidescope Century and Candle - which are not precisely sequels but do take place in the same universe) and we STILL don't have the whole picture, and the canvas keeps getting bigger!
Now, despite all the literary kudos, the most compelling reason to read this book is that it's simply a damn good fun read! Yeah, sure, essentially, it's "just" a well-written coming of age story. But what makes that a bad thing? I rarely read novels more than once. Why would I want to waste time on a book I've already read when there are so many more out there to discover? And I can count the books (or rather, series of books) I've read more than twice on just the fingers of one hand. With the recent publication of Candle in paperback, my thirst for John Barnes was rekindled. (pun deliberate, sorry!) To keep all the events straight in my mind, I just added Orbital Resonance and Kaleidescope Century to that prized list.