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Title: Judas Unchained Author: Peter F. Hamilton Genre: Science Fiction Pages: 949 Format: Hardback Publisher: Macmillan 1st Edition: 2005 Price: £ 18.99 ISBN: 1-4050-0036-8
This is the second and concluding novel of the Commonwealth Saga that began with the novel Pandora's Star. If you haven't read Pandora's Star yet, then I would suggest you do not start reading this book. Unlike most multi-book series, the two books of the Commonwealth Saga cannot be read in isolation, Judas Unchained is actually a simple continuation of Pandora's Star.
The story so far. In Pandora's Star the Human Race discover wormhole technology and as a result begin to spread out across space, colonising hundreds of planets. Over several hundred years, powerful Dynasties and Grand Families are created by the vast wealth these colonies generate. These planets form themselves into a Commonwealth, headed by the Big15, the home worlds of the Dynasties. On one of the most distant colonies, a planet called Far Away, a crashed alien spacecraft is discovered. As a result a strange cult known as the 'Guardians of Selfhood' emerges claiming the spacecraft's occupant, a malevolent alien referred to as the 'Starflyer', has infiltrated the Commonwealth and is plotting its downfall. After a number of atrocities are attributed to the Guardians they are declared terrorists and become the focus of an intense investigation. Meanwhile an unknown astronomer discovers that a mysterious region in deep space that was thought to be an impenetrable barrier surrounding a solar system has in fact disappeared and the solar system is now visible. Intrigued, the Commonwealth builds its first interstellar space ship to go off and investigate. What they discover is an alien race called the Primes, who are so xenophobic and vicious they make Nazis look positively friendly. Having awakened the sleeping dragon, the Commonwealth finds itself faced with an all-out war with an adversary who appears to have unlimited resources and a relentless savagery. In its first assault the Prime species occupies 23 of the Commonwealth's outlying planets, killing millions and turning millions more into refugees. What happens next is the subject of Judas Unchained.
Having read the rather thick Pandora's Star, I wanted to get my hands on Judas Unchained quickly before I had the chance to forget the story. Unfortunately I had to wait for a year before the hardback eventually made it on to the bookseller's shelves. With the 949 pages of Judas Unchained the Commonwealth Saga now spanned over 2300 pages, so it's not too difficult to understand why the decision was made to split this novel in two. Frankly Judas Unchained should have been titled Pandora's Star Part 2, because there is absolutely no attempt made in either novel to engender a sense of individual completeness. Pandora's Star ends abruptly in the middle of a war and Judas Unchained simply takes up the plot at that same point with only the most cursory of forewords.
If you read my introduction you will have some idea of the direction of the story is taking. The plot is a fairly standard good versus evil scenario, although there are numerous subplots introduced to add more flesh to the basic skeleton.
Without giving too much away, the story opens with the war against the Primes in full swing and the humans are losing. Fortunately we are a resourceful bunch and soon new weapons and tactics are employed to assist in the fight. Three of the main characters, Ozzie, young Orion and squidgy alien Touchee, are continuing their adventures along the Silfen pathways, trying to discover who put the barrier up around the Primes in the first place. Investigator Myo who has been hunting down the Guardians of Selfhood for 130 years finds herself sacked and facing an uncertain future. Agents of the Starflyer are wreaking havoc all around the Commonwealth. Bubble headed reporter Mellanie Recorai discovers she is more resourceful than she ever imagined, as she, with the help of the SI (Sentient intelligence), tries to unravel the Starflyer network. Nigel Sheldon, head of the largest Dynasty, sets secret plans in motion to evacuate his entire Dynasty in vast lifeboat spaceships if the war effort goes badly. At the same time he's developing super weapons for the navy. MorningLightMountain, the Prime Immotile (super baddie), is now poised to push the Prime invasion deeper into Commonwealth Space and has some very nasty surprises up its sleeves.
In total there are 62 central characters in this story. All of these characters has a subplot of their own and also has a pivotal role to play in the overall story, so its easy to get lost if you are used to reading books with one or two main characters in them. How Hamilton keeps all these individual plots running is remarkable. With so many characters it is easy for an author to lose interest in a subplot and leave it to fizzle out too soon. Hamilton keeps most of his characters involved right up to last possible moment, at which point he finds a suitably interesting way to end a character's participation in the story.
By itself Judas Unchained is a long read, but coupled with Pandora's Star it is a bit of a labour of love. There is a great deal of padding to wade through, where Hamilton has let his imagination run riot and has suffered from a bad case literary diarrhoea. I get the impression that Hamilton was a Geography Teacher in a former life. His insistence on describing in detail the topography of every landscape his characters encounter, whether it effects the story development or not, can be quite irritating no matter how lyrical the prose. A mountain is a mountain, and unless someone is going to have to climb it, I don't want to know anything about it. Similarly, there is a great deal of intricate detailing of the technology being used, most of which is superfluous to requirements. I like tech stuff, but it has to be concise. Hamilton's verbose style makes opening a door sound like an exercise only a Nuclear Physicist should tackle.
Conversely, Hamilton's characters, although fleshed out to a degree, are rather one-dimensional. Most of them are soulless creations that are impossible to warm to, even the ones that are patently meant to invoke sympathy in the reader. Of them all, the aliens seem to be the most involving largely due to Hamilton's attempts to delve into their psyche. The real sense of dispassionate malevolence gained from the description of MorningLightMountain's thoughts is starkly contrasted with the dull way in which the human character's emotions are explored. This is especially true of the males who all seem to be terminally uninteresting. Is this possibly a case of art imitating life?
Personally I would have liked the publisher's editor to insist on a bit more pruning, just to speed up the pace a bit. The story is good, in fact if it had all been crammed into the one book it would probably have been excellent, but spread out like this it just isn't gripping enough.
On this evidence I'm not that inclined to sample any of the author's other work.
Another small gripe, nothing to do with the author, is the proof reading of this first edition. There are a plethora of elementary typographical errors that are frankly irksome when you are reading such a big book. Doubtless the proofreader skipped some sections, which would come as no real surprise, I was tempted myself.
As a whole Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained represent a lot of effort on the author's part and they require a similar effort on the part of the reader. As you can't read one without the other you should consider them as a single book and approach them as such.
The sheer complexity and number of plots shouldn't put you off, unless you find it difficult to maintain numerous concurrent stories in your head, in which case this is not the book for you.
If you like tales of weird aliens, war, politics, murder, sex, intrigue etc., there is likely to be something in here for you. If you're a landscape gardener, architect or an engineer, you may even pick up some tips.
As for me, this is not a book I will reread; it just doesn't have that spark that would draw me back into the story. Azimov it isn't.
Sounds a beast! The first of these would have been read a while back if my then GF had bought it, but according to her, ' she fell asleep while reading the blurb ' goes without saying really. Gret review ............................... Gil
Moogiekupo 02.02.2006 15:22
An excellent review, with enough details and plot. This is very interesting so I will keep an eye out for this - Kupo x