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The plot thickens...
on 12 September 2009
The preceding volume to this one, Stealing Light, culminated in the human protagonists, Dakota Merrick and Lucas Corso, fleeing an exploding star having discovered the dark secret that a superluminal drive could force a sun to go nova, making it a phenomenal weapon. They ended up in a system controlled by the Bandati, a race whose social organisation resembles that of insects, with Hives ruled by Queens.
It is at this point that Nova War takes up the story: Dakota and Lucas have been captured and extensively tortured by the Bandati, who want to know all they know about FTL travel Meanwhile, Shoal agent Trader-in-Faecal-Matter-to-Animals, is continuing in his efforts to prevent the spread of knowledge of the FTL secret, and preserve his race. His job is made more difficult, however, by the revelation that the Bandati have long had a Magi derelict of their own, and have been secretly in contact with the Emissaries, an aggressively expansionist race who also possess FTL technology, and with whom the Shoal have been fighting a secretive cold-war for centuries. With conflict occurring between rival Bandati Hives, suddenly Dakota and Lucas' knowledge of the Magi makes them valuable commodities, and they have no choice but to negotiate their way through a tangled web of treacherous alien agendas in order to find some way to protect the Human race, as the Shoal-Emissary conflict enters a new phase, and the purposes of the intelligent Magi starships become clearer, too.
Gibson's main strength, and his main interest, it seems, is in the description of aliens, and to a lesser extent, alien cultures (this was also a feature of his earlier novel, Angel Stations) - there's not the extensive and detailed development and explanation of advanced technologies that you get from Peter F. Hamilton, for example. So, to the piscine Shoal, he now adds the insectile Bandati, and the bizarrely elephantine Emissaries. He also seems to feel that he's given enough background, as there's almost none of the jumping about from past to present and back which was a major feature of Stealing Light, although he does alternate between the perspectives of Dakota, Lucas and, to a lesser extent, Trader and the other aliens. Both of the main protagonists are reasonably well-drawn, and you get a sense of their motivations and different perspectives. The aliens, though, don't seem that, well, alien in their motivations, with the possible exception of the Emissaries.
There's been some criticism of Gibson's writing style from other reviewers for being overblown, but I have to admit I didn't feel this was a problem, a bigger issue was the pacing of the story: after a slow beginning - which is not necessarily a weakness - there's an action packed centre, then events trail off, and grind to a halt, with a last flash of action at the end to whet the reader's appetite for the next volume. This can't help but make the book seem somewhat anticlimactic, and one gets the sense that more exciting developments are being saved for later. This feels a little contrived, but I'm not sufficiently annoyed to refuse to buy the next instalment out of pique.
To sum up, then, Nova War shows some of the signs of running out of steam that are a common fault with second volumes in a series, but still contains enough inventiveness to keep one's interest, and I'll be waiting to find out how Dakota's odyssey progresses.