A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

by Becky Chambers

Cover image

Series: Monk & Robot #2
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-23624-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 151

Buy at Powell's Books

A Prayer for the Crown Shy is the second novella in the Monk & Robot series and a direct sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Don't start here.

I would call this the continuing adventures of Sibling Dex and Mosscap the robot, except adventures is entirely the wrong term for stories with so little risk or danger. The continuing tour? The continuing philosophical musings? Whatever one calls it, it's a slow exploration of Dex's world, this time with Mosscap alongside. Humans are about to have their first contact with a robot since the Awakening.

If you're expecting that to involve any conflict, well, you've misunderstood the sort of story that this is. Mosscap causes a sensation, certainly, but a very polite and calm one, and almost devoid of suspicion or fear. There is one village where they get a slightly chilly reception, but even that is at most a quiet disapproval for well-understood reasons. This world is more utopian than post-scarcity, in that old sense of utopian in which human nature has clearly been rewritten to make the utopia work.

I have to admit I'm struggling with this series. It's calm and happy and charming and occasionally beautiful in its descriptions. Dex continues to be a great character, with enough minor frustration, occasional irritation, and inner complications to make me want to keep reading about them. But it's one thing to have one character in a story who is simply a nice person at a bone-deep level, particularly given that Dex chose religious orders and to some extent has being a nice person as their vocation. It's another matter entirely when apparently everyone in the society is equally nice, and the only conflicts come from misunderstandings, respectful disagreements of opinion, and the occasional minor personality conflict.

Realism has long been the primary criticism of Chambers's work, but in her Wayfarers series the problems were mostly in the technology and its perpetual motion machines. Human civilization in the Exodus Fleet was a little too calm and nice given its traumatic past (and, well, humans), but there were enough conflicts, suspicions, and poor decisions for me to recognize it as human society. It was arguably a bit too chastened, meek, and devoid of shit-stirring demagogues, but it was at least in contact with human society as I recognize it.

I don't recognize Panga as humanity. I realize this is to some degree the point of this series: to present a human society in which nearly all of the problems of anger and conflict have been solved, and to ask what would come after, given all of that space. And I'm sure that one purpose of this type of story is to be, as I saw someone describe it, hugfic: the fictional equivalent of a warm hug from a dear friend, safe and supportive and comforting. Maybe it says bad, or at least interesting, things about my cynicism that I don't understand a society that's this nice. But that's where I'm stuck.

If there were other dramatic elements to focus on, I might not mind it as much, but the other pole of the story apart from the world tour is Mosscap's philosophical musings, and I'm afraid I'm already a bit tired of them. Mosscap is earnest and thoughtful and sincere, but they're curious about Philosophy 101 material and it's becoming frustrating to see Mosscap and Dex meander through these discussions without attempting to apply any theoretical framework whatsoever. Dex is a monk, who supposedly has a scholarship tradition from which to draw, and yet appears to approach all philosophical questions with nothing more than gut feeling, common sense, and random whim. Mosscap is asking very basic meaning-of-life sorts of questions, the kind of thing that humans have been writing and arguing about from before we started keeping records and which are at the center of any religious philosophy. I find it frustrating that someone supposedly educated in a religious tradition can't bring more philosophical firepower to these discussions.

It doesn't help that this entry in the series reinforces the revelation that Mosscap's own belief system is weirdly unsustainable to such a degree that it's staggering that any robots still exist. If I squint, I can see some interesting questions raised by the robot attitude towards their continued existence (although most of them feel profoundly depressing to me), but I was completely unable to connect their philosophy in any believable way with their origins and the stated history of the world. I don't understand how this world got here, and apparently I'm not able to let that go.

This all sounds very negative, and yet I did enjoy this novella. Chambers is great at description of places that I'd love to visit, and there is something calm and peaceful about spending some time in a society this devoid of conflict. I also really like Dex, even more so after seeing their family, and I'm at least somewhat invested in their life decisions. I can see why people like these novellas. But if I'm going to read a series that's centered on questions of ethics and philosophy, I would like it to have more intellectual heft than we've gotten so far.

For what it's worth, I'm seeing a bit of a pattern where people who bounced off the Wayfarers books like this series much better, whereas people who loved the Wayfarers books are not enjoying these quite as much. I'm in the latter camp, so if you didn't like Chambers's earlier work, maybe you'll find this more congenial? There's a lot less found family here, for one thing; I love found family stories, but they're not to everyone's taste.

If you liked A Psalm for the Wild-Built, you will probably also like A Prayer for the Crown-Shy; it's more of the same thing in both style and story. If you found the first story frustratingly unbelievable or needing more philosophical depth, I'm afraid this is unlikely to be an improvement. It does have some lovely scenes, though, and is stuffed full of sheer delight in both the wild world and in happy communities of people.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-08-20

Last modified and spun 2022-08-21