Nova War is the sequel to 2008’s Stealing Light a book that, surprise surprise, has yet to get a release here in the states. Nova War dispenses with some of the mystery of the first novel and trading it instead for some serious action. Indeed things are ratcheted right up to eleven and amongst all the action and excitement I felt that Gibson still managed to do an excellent job in creating unique and memorable characters and wound up with a book that surpassed its predecessor in terms of quality. If you haven’t read the first book be warned there will be some minor spoilers below.
After having escaped an exploding star in an ancient Magi spaceship machine-head Dakota Merrick and her erstwhile lover and sometime rival Lucas Corso find themselves captured by the insect-like Bandati. Tortured and imprisoned for their knowledge of the Magi technology Dakota and Lucas find themselves trapped not only between warring hives of Bandati but square in between the arrogant Shoal and their longtime enemies the Emissaries. As hostilities between the two ancient rivals escalate Dakota, with her special connection to Magi ships, becomes a key figure in a battle that far transcends the scope of human, or even Shoal, knowledge.
In my review of Stealing Light I mentioned Star Wars and while the novel as a whole transcends the more fantasy-based architecture of that series it seems to me that Gibson certainly draws inspiration from some of the more wondrous and adventurous situations that the original trilogy offered. During an early scene in Nova War I was reminded of The Empire Strikes back and the scene where Han and company take refuge in what they think is an asteroid. I still remember the sort of “Wow” moment induced when the truth behind where they were was revealed. In Nova War Gibson plays upon a similar theme in a restaurant inside the mouth of a giant worm. I’ll repeat that: a restaurant in the mouth of giant worm. Gibson does a masterful job of imparting basic knowledge of Bandati culture (where eating is a completely private affair), introducing us to new characters, and providing a thrilling scene of high action. It is certainly one of the best, if not THE best, action scenes I’ve read all year.
Nova War expands the scope of the Shoal sequence introducing us to new aliens; such as the horrific Emissaries. While we don’t get any chapters from an Emissary perspective what we go glimpse reveals a species terrifying in their power and with a mad zealotry towards nigh on inscrutable goals. Hopefully we’ll see more of the Emissaries in future volumes since Gibson dropped just enough hints to wet my curiosity but not enough answers to sate it. The things Dakota learns from the Magi vessel further expands on the universe that Gibson has created and manages to infuse dire events with a certain amount of hope for the futures of the Shoal’s “client species.”
While I didn’t mention it in my review of Stealing Light, Nova War continues Gibson’s penchant for offering entertaining and evocative names for his non-human characters. We have, returning from the previous novel, the Shoal Trader in Faecal Matter of Animals whose name, despite being somewhat humorous still manages to accurately describe his personality. The bandati’s names are more translations of their personal scents so you get the wonderfully evocative “Scent of Honeydew, Distant Rumble of Summer Storms” (Honeydew for short) and the former ambassador to a human colony “Days of Wine and Roses” (a name that is considered odd by his people). The bandati names might be tiresome if their scent based communication weren’t carried through in other aspects of the novel but thankfully it is; one particular scene in which Wine and Roses urges haste because of an alarm causes a character respond along the lines of “I don’t hear an alarm only smell something burning” which Wine and Roses responds “That is the alarm.”
Each of the main characters of Nova War are well realized and believable individuals with histories and goals that are unique. Even that characters that are nominally on the same side often have agendas and goals that don’t mesh with their “allies.” As a result Gibson weaves a tangled web of politics and personal relationships that creates not only an emotional connection to his characters but also enhances the tension amongst the various factions vying for control of the Magic vessel. There are no real clear cut mustache-twirling villains here, though the actions some characters take have tragic galaxy spawning consequences their motivations are typically clear and not necessarily evil from their perspective.
Nova War is a thrilling addition to the Shoal sequence and a definite improvement over the already-stellar Stealing Light. Despite the lack of an official US release I highly highly recommend fans of space opera to hit up Book Depository and Amazon.co.uk (according this news post ebooks are available via panmacmillan.com) and give the series a try. Gibson, ends Nova War with rather frustrating hints at what is to come in the next volume, Empire of Light (release date unknown), that leave me wishing I had the book right now. Nova War is definitely on my list of favorite reads of 2009 and I look forward to Mr. Gibson’s future work.