The Well of Stars
(Orbit, £6.99, 474 pages, paperback, published December 2004.)
The Great Ship drifts through the Milky Way
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
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.