This is the third in a new trilogy that started with Blue Remembered Earth (click here for review) and continued in On The Steel Breeze (click here for review.)
This is epic SF on a truly grand scale it spans multiple generations and hundreds of years and a multitude of light-years. The story started with the Akinya family and Eunice Akinya who had a vision for her family and their role in the universe.
Some 500 years later than the first book, Crucible is now settled by humans and the story starts with Mposi and Ndege, children of two of the Chikus. Ndege is responsible for a catastrophe that killed hundreds of thousands of people so has been on house arrest most of her life but she has become a person of interest when a radio signal from a far away system is directed to Crucible and names Ndege herself. Not all the bodies from the catastrophe were ever accounted for, nor all the mass of the spaceship itself a mystery. Maybe not anymore…maybe the rest of the ship and the missing persons including her mother Chiku, the artilect Eunice and Dakota the smartest elephant ever still exist in this far away star system. How else to explain a signal that knows Ndege’s name?
Crucible is now being continually monitored by alien robots the Watchkeepers and no one knows if a ship will be allowed to leave without being obliterated. Even after hundreds of years, little is known of the Watchkeepers or their purpose but they are an ever-present reminder that humans can’t always control their destiny. Ndege is too old to make the journey; in her place goes her daughter, Goma. Accompanying Goma is her uncle Mposi and her wife, Ru. The trip itself is fraught with trouble as the current political climate forces additions to the crew from an opposing party with very different sentiments regarding intelligent elephants. Goma and Ru have spent much of their lives mentoring and caring for the remaining Tantor herd elephants have always played a large part in the Akinya saga a herd that is slowly declining in intelligence due to a small gene pool. The loss of a self-aware intelligence to partner with humans is a loss beyond reckoning to Goma and Ru, must less so to the Second Chancers who argue that humans had no business uplifting another species. Having Second Chancers aboard a ship that may be on its way to meeting another group of Tantors causes no end of acrimony and, quite possibly, sabotage and murder. So the ship successfully leaves Crucible with the hope of gaining information on a number of issues: what happened to the destroyed ship (is there a chance of absolving Ndege of all the blame), does the artilect Eunice still exist, is there another colony of Tantors, and will they be able to learn anything new about the Watchkeepers. A daunting prospect on all fronts.
At the same time, another member of the Akinya family falls victim to murder. Mars belongs to robots now a development caused by Eunice many hundreds of years prior. The robot Evolvarium allows four human ambassadors on the planet but many humans don’t find that acceptable. They believe they have the right to ‘reclaim’ the planet for human colonization. Kanu is one of those ambassadors; he was son to Chiku Yellow and gave up living as a Merman for a chance to interact with sentient robots particularly his friend Swift. An attack by the Reclamationists kills him and the robots put him back together. But the experience destroys his credibility with humans; causing the suspicion that he is more robot than human. With no direction in his life, Kanu is looking for a reason to live when he also hears of the message from space directed to his relative Ndege. Since nothing holds him back, he decides to follow the signal. There is a lovely adventure with his ex-wife, whom he still loves, to find a ship that will make the journey.
Once Goma’s ship finally arrives in the new system, what they find is nothing short of astounding and miraculous. But Kanu, arriving about the same time, finds a different miracle one that may be quite dangerous not only to all of the newly arrived humans but the entire human race. I really wish I could tell you what they find but it would be a major spoiler. But it is awesome!
This plot is intensely complex incorporating many different POVs and weaving them together so they all contribute to the final climax. There is so much information in almost 600 pages it is a challenge to the reader to keep everything clear. I really enjoyed the characters although I continue to complain that the author does not clearly define his characters physicality, nor does he waste much space on worldbuilding expecting, instead, for the reader to be carried along. As with many SF authors, he is much more interested in expanding on ideas. I guess they feel the fantasy genre gives us the colorful yet essentially useless details. And I can’t really argue with that as it took him nearly 600 pages just to sufficiently illustrate his ideas (times three books.)
I believe this was marketed as a trilogy but there is still room for more. Perhaps he will spin off a different trilogy to further explore the changes to mankind and their relationships with both the Evolvarium and the Tantors. And then there’s the Watchkeepers who may also be evolving… ~~ Catherine Book