This has been one of my most keenly anticipated reads of 2021 – even though I’m aware that said anticipation is something of a poisoned chalice. For if it doesn’t blow me away as the previous three books have – see my reviews of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit and my mini-review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate – then I’ll be very disappointed. But I’m aware that it’s not reasonable to expect an author to produce four books in a row that all blow me away…
BLURB: With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop. At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.
When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.
REVIEW: I needn’t have worried – once again, Chambers weaves her magic. We are drawn into the lives of these disparate individuals as they are temporarily trapped at a small stop-over. Each one of these characters are aliens with very different bodies, customs and cultures – Roveg is a Quelin, though exiled from his homeworld; Speaker is an Akarak, frantic at being separated from her twin, and Pei is the one character who links us back to the first book, as he is Ashby’s lover. Their needs are being catered by a Ouloo and her adolescent child Tupo, who both captured my heart more than any of the other characters. That said, each one of them have their own challenges and simply do the best to get by – which resonated with me.
What leapt off the page was everyone’s striving to do their best to be accommodating and polite, despite finding themselves stranded in quite difficult circumstances. Which was often in stark contrast to what has been unfolding during 2020, while we grapple with our own difficult circumstances… Nonetheless there are cultural tensions – and they flare one evening when at least one of the characters has had too much to drink. And it is Ouloo’s response that brought tears to my eyes when she announces that she knows that what has happened to both Pei’s and Speaker’s people is completely unacceptable – but there is nothing that she can do about that. She is simply overwhelmed by the complexity of the arguments on both sides. What she can do is try to help people feel at home and relaxed when they stop off for supplies – and serve desserts they find delicious.
I am conscious that I’ve made this story sound rather sappy and Pollyanna-ish and it’s nothing of the sort. Despite the relative gentleness of Chambers’ writing, she doesn’t shy away from some gnarly subjects our small band of aliens are encountering – sexual and cultural prejudice, and the plight of refugees who through no fault of their own have no planet with no imminent hope of being allocated one because they fall outside the accepted norms in appearance… I’m aware my review hasn’t begun to adequately describe the magic of Chambers’ writing – probably because I’m not really sure how she does it.
However, I urge you to go looking for this one if you’re scratching your head at my inane attempt to try and sum up this book – and try it for yourself. If you fall under her spell, chances are, you’ll be thanking me if you do. It’s made my Outstanding Reads of 2021, that’s for sure. While I obtained an arc of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.