Review by John for Transcendental by James Gunn.
John’s quick take: Great science fiction story but a bad ending.
John’s description: Long, bitter wars between Earth and several other civilizations within the galaxy have finally come to an end and an uneasy peace ensues. Now a new religious movement has arisen inspired by a secretive prophet who talks of transcendence and an enigmatic machine that can take sentient beings to a whole new level. A starship embarks on a pilgrimage to the galactic edge to try and find the machine, taking a group of beings of many diverse species on a dangerous trip to the far reaches of space.
Among the pilgrims on the voyage is Riley, a bitter, cynical human war veteran who is anything but a pilgrim. He has been sent by a mysterious power player to try and identify and destroy the prophet and to discover the whereabouts of the machine. But as the ship pushes on ever further into deep space, one passenger after another falls prey to foul play. It seems that Riley is not the only secret agent among the pilgrims - the rulers of the various galactic powers must fear the consequences if the prophet and the machine come to light, and they are desperate to maintain the current status quo.
As the violence and skullduggery unfold, some of the pilgrims start to share their personal stories and the stories of their own alien races, rather like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But who can be believed and trusted? Riley needs help but is surrounded by aliens who are unfathomable and may be hostile. He also starts to question his own motives and desires though his unknown employer seems to have left him no option but to complete his secret mission.
John’s thoughts: This is an excellent plot which I loved. The story is complex, nicely detailed and unpredictable, and the characters - both human and alien - are well-developed and have real depth. Actually I really like how Gunn has created his aliens. The techy bits of the story are also credible and add to the story rather than get in the way of it. So what’s not to like? The ending sucks.
Did you ever take a school or college exam where you felt fully in control and thought you were doing brilliantly, only to realize that you only have two minutes left and still have a lot of ground to cover in your answer? Well, that’s a bit what it felt like reading this book or how I imagined the author felt writing it. As I got nearer and nearer to the end of the book I worried that there was still an awful lot of story that had to play out. Then in the last handful of pages everything is wrapped up in obscene haste with no apparent regard for the reader. Key pieces of the plot don’t come to a logical conclusion and some that are wrapped up are rushed and just don’t feel right.
I’m hard pressed to think of another book I’ve enjoyed so much but whose ending I disliked so much. Overall I’d have to rate this 2.5 stars. If you’re a diehard Gunn fan you may well love it. Otherwise, approach with caution, go with the flow and enjoy the story unfolding, but keep your expectations of the book’s finale really low.
Tor Books | 8/27/2013 | Hardcover | 304 pages