infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

The Well of Stars

by Robert Reed

(Orbit, £6.99, 474 pages, paperback, published December 2004.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

The Great Ship drifts through the Milky Way cover scangalaxy. Virtually as old as the universe, massing as much as twenty Earths, home to a hundred billion creatures from a thousand sentient species, it pursues an odyssey of matchless grandeur.

Controlled, and largely crewed, by humans of immense wisdom and virtually immortal lifespan, the Great Ship has recently weathered serious troubles. To the surprise of its masters it was found to have, at its core, an entire previously undiscovered world (this despite an occupation measured in hundreds of millennia). That world, Marrow, became the site of a war that nearly took over the Great Ship, killed billions, and did knock it off course (Reed seems to have recounted these events in a previous novel, named, appropriately enough, Marrow, which alas I have not read).

At the start of The Well of Stars, the Great Ship is plunging at a third the speed of light towards a mysterious dark nebula, nursing serious structural wounds, a fractious population, and with its command hierarchy undergoing major shifts after epochs of stability.

Newly in control are sub-masters Washen and Pamir (her lover), and it is up to them to pull the ship together, devise some solution both to their unfortunate course change (which will send them spinning off into inter-galactic space in just a few thousand years) and weather the unknown dangers of the nebula and its mysterious, possibly sinister inhabitants. There are good and not-so-good aspects to this book. The first thing is, that despite being part of a sequence, it reads fairly well as a standalone.

Reed does some good, deft work in the opening chapters to clue his reader in to prior events, without being ham-handed about it. Also, he certainly has an eye for grandeur. The Great Ship is a big, impressive plot device. Unknowably old, immense, mysterious, it's a fine setting for any sort of conflict an author might wish to stage. There are also some reasonably memorable characters. Not all of them, by any means, but Osmium, the Harum-Scarum security chief, and Mere, the ancient human orphan used by the crew as their best prober of alien species and mindsets, certainly have presence. Also, having come up with a very big and, one would have thought, very safe and secure, space vessel, Reed manages to produce some very big and credibly nasty threats to menace it with.

Where the novel falters is in making the stress, the sweaty effort, the pain and the fear, the triumphs and the tragedies of its heroes truly vivid. One can see Reed making the necessary effort. There's nothing wrong with his smooth, evenly-paced prose, and he focuses in tightly on the struggling individuals at appropriate moments, but the truly in-your-face immediacy of their experiences is somehow not there.

The best comparison I can make, is that reading this book is a little like watching an exciting, vivid, action-packed adventure movie on TV, with the sound turned down very low. The impact is muted, because for all the challenges with which the book is flooded, Reed doesn't quite manage to make the character's experiences real to the reader. In sum then, a pleasant diversion, but really not very gripping.

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)