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Judas Unchained: Part Two of the Commonwealth Saga

by Peter F Hamilton

(Macmillan, 949 pages, numbered, limited edition uncorrected book proof, will be available in hardback priced 18.99, published 7 October 2005.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanThe second, and concluding volume in Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga starts very much in the same spirit as the first one ended. About a dozen primary characters are charging along intersecting plotlines, struggling to make sense of the disasters overwhelming human civilisation, or just trying to keep themselves in one piece.

Ozzie Isaacs, wormhole inventor and cosmic layabout, for example, was last seen falling off a miniature water-worldlet somewhere on the mystical Silfen paths. Melanie Rescorai, gauche girl-reporter and hard-wired SI agent, was (and still is) trying to get the goods on her boss, media queen-bitch Alessandra Baron, whom she's convinced is a Starflyer pawn. Admiral Wilson Kime is struggling to beat back the relentless invasion of the Dyson Prime aliens. Adam Elvin and Bradley Johanssen are trying to track down and destroy the Starflyer, while Investigator Paula Myo, genetically engineered to be the perfect, relentless sleuth, is tracking down them.

This summation doesn't even touch the inter-twining strands of power-politics, covert assassination, espionage and investigation, nor the nuke-toting guerilla warriors that the Commonwealth deploys, all techno-adapted miracles of ultra-modern lethality, to stall the Dyson Prime invasion while the science labs begin to churn out ever nastier weaponry...

There are an awful lot of things to admire in this book. It's the kind of science fiction that Hamilton does so very well. The techno-speak is near perfect, the science is hard, but always presented smoothly enough so as not to overwhelm the reader. The action scenes are breath-taking, and many of the characters twist and turn with admirable ingenuity to get out from under the hammer (or away from the ion-beam, or maser-ray) before it comes smashing down.

But there are distinct flaws too. This is not Hamilton's best work; for that you have to go back to the first two volumes of the terrific Night's Dawn trilogy. The pace is a bit slack, especially towards the beginning, where a rather lengthy passage following Mellanie Rescorai and Dudley Bose to the planet Far Away definitely drags. Intercuts from one plotline to another could certainly be sharper, and it seems a bit unfair not to give the key villain of the piece, the remorseless alien invader, MorningLightMountain, a bit more 'screen-time' to gnash his (metaphorical) teeth and plan the destruction of humanity in vivid and gory detail.

Perhaps a little less time devoted to world, or locale, building passages, and a bit more effort building up some of the characters, especially the secondary ones, would have lent the book better balance (and helped these people take on more life for the reader).

As a last criticism, one can't help noticing that where it comes to dealing with the more mystical, or philosophical, conflicts of the work, Hamilton doesn't have any very clever answers (a problem that sadly undercut the final volume in the Night's Dawn trilogy). If you were hoping for some genuinely insightful, revelatory resolution to the Silfen plotline, well, this is a hoop Hamilton has shot for, and missed, before, and he does no better this time round.

Nonetheless, the story still rates a strong 'B+'. It has a reach and depth of vision, and a panache with its spectacles, fire-fights, and personal confrontations, that very few writers can match. It's not quite bewitching, but it's certainly compelling.

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