A Closed and Common Orbit

by Becky Chambers

Cover image

Series: Wayfarers #2
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: October 2016
ISBN: 0-06-256942-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 384

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A Closed and Common Orbit has two threads, one that takes place twenty years in the past and one that happens simultaneously with the very end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That second part is the motivating plot thread, but it's unfortunately impossible to talk about in any depth without seriously spoiling the previous book. You could otherwise read them out of order, but I think the previous book is too good to spoil, so you want to carefully avoid reading any descriptions of this book until after you've read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Per my normal review policy, I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but just about everything about half of this book would give away spoilers if you're paying attention. So you may want to just go read the other book before reading this review. (It's excellent!)

The part that I can safely say is that half this book is about Pepper, her partner Blue, Pepper's store and Blue's art, and her attempt to help a friend find a place and a sense of identity that she'd never asked for or expected, while keeping a very dangerous secret. That friend starts somewhat passive, but one of the things I liked the most about this story is that Pepper is neither always right in her advice nor always wrong. Sidra is wrong about some of the limitations that she thinks she has and some of the things she thinks she wants, but she's also right about other things where Pepper is wrong. She has a complicated, careful, and courageous journey.

The best part of this book for me, though, was the other half, told in alternating chapters with Sidra's story. This is Pepper's own backstory, which is rather awful (although Chambers does avoid being too graphic about the most horrible parts), but is also an amazing story of someone finding her own power, her own skills, and her own identity. And building a relationship that's something quite special. At first, this seems only vaguely related to Sidra's story and the other half of the book, but they both come together in a way that's both heartbreaking and wonderful.

I found this story particularly wonderful because one of my favorite SF tropes is sentient computers or sentient ships, which play a significant role in Pepper's backstory. And one of my favorite characters to read about is the technician who can cobble together fixes to things and who is always finding something to repair. Pepper is a delight, her story explains so much about how she became the person she is (and adds so much emotional heft to it), and she has a relentless, practical determination that I loved reading about.

A Closed and Common Orbit doesn't have the sprawling cast of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The story is tightly focused on five characters. I think I liked that even better than the previous book, even when I was finding Sidra a bit too passive and not as interesting. Chambers's characters have so much depth, thoughtfulness, and basic decency, while still being uniquely themselves, that I feel like I could read about them for months and keep uncovering new, interesting facets. I particularly loved the occasional excerpts from the chat system where Pepper hangs out (and would have loved about three times more of them). Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time in chat, Chambers got the tone just about perfect.

Just about the only complaint I have about this book is that I thought the ending was too abrupt. It's so important, the climax of Pepper's story and a hugely significant piece of character development, and I wanted more than the short scene and aftermath we got. I really wanted to spend some time feeling with the characters, savoring the emotional release. Another three or four pages would have been greatly appreciated.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a happy surprise in 2015. A Closed and Common Orbit is fully as good, if not better. If you liked the previous book, you will definitely want to read this. I pre-ordered it and then read it within months after it was released, something that I almost never do. I can hardly wait to read whatever Chambers writes next.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-01-31

Last modified and spun 2017-02-01