Warner Aspect, 1997-2000, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various
A Second Chance at Eden, 1997, 420 pages
The Reality Dysfunction, Part 1: Emergence, 1996, 586 pages
The Reality Dysfunction, Part 2: Expansion, 1996, 572 pages
The Neutronium Alchemist, Part 1: Conflict, 580 pages
The Neutronium Alchemist, Part 2: Consolidation, 596 pages
The Naked God, Part 1: Flight, 2000, 778 pages
The Naked God, Part 2: Faith, 2000, 778 pages
Six books. 4000+ pages. A cast of hundreds. Techno-jargon. The Dead coming back to life. Oh no, the Night’s Dawn trilogy isn’t for sissies. Even reasonably fast readers such as myself basically have to plan ahead for a month’s worth of reading time in order to get through it all. Is it all worth it? Absolutely.
I mean, let’s face it: In its quest for literary legitimacy and critical consideration, Science-Fiction has indeed become a more respectable literature with poignant characters, enjoyable prose and complex plotting. Unfortunately, along the way we seemed to lose the very thing that had initially attracted us to the genre: Big ideas, high adventure and stakes that made the galaxy look small. Sure, pulp SF space opera was fast, cheap and out of literary control, but at least it was a blast. Why wouldn’t it be possible to use the new facets of SF and stuff them with some of that old space-opera fun?
I’m not sure if that’s what Peter F. Hamilton intended when he sat down to write the Night’s Dawn trilogy, but the woozy cozy feeling of grandiose fun is what I’m keeping in mind after completing the trilogy. The sheer bulk of the work makes it a reading experience unlike any other.
It begins laboriously, of course. You can’t just rush into a brand-new interstellar universe in a hapzard fashion, and Hamilton is careful in establishing the various threads of the story. Be careful, however, in assuming that initially important characters will remain so. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole trilogy is seeing one sympathetic but over-abused character simply say “That’s it! I did my job and now I quit!” then disappear from the rest of the story.
In a relatively short time (that would only be 600 pages, mind you), the fascinating framework of Hamilton’s universe and the most important characters are established. That’s crucial, given that these very same characters form the bulk of the Night Dawn trilogy’s continued appeal. Whether we’re with our stalwart hero Joshua Calvert, our innocent rich girl Louise Kavanagh, our delightful Lord of Ruin, our detestable antagonist Quinn Dexter or most of the rest of the hundred-plus dramatis personae, Hamilton makes us care for most of them. (With exceptions; however hard I tried, I couldn’t get interested in any of the Hippie-Possessed characters or the Valisk habitat.) In any case, don’t be worried about the size of the cast; they’re introduced in a very organic fashion, sometime so smoothly that you only later realize how important some bit-players eventually become.
Indeed, it’s hard not to be impressed by how smoothly Hamilton sets up his various players, whether he’s introducing characters or explaining the political complexities between the various empires that interact in his universe. Some of the best moments in the trilogy are in fact alliances shifts and other spectaculars that depend almost exclusively on the various forces that Hamilton himself sets up. We’re not talking chamber drama; we’re talking massive space battles, planets disappearing, the dead returning to life and stars exploding.
Sounds juvenile? Don’t be so sure. While pulp space-opera often read like the scribblings of a bright overenthusiastic teenager, Hamilton comes to the genre with an approach that benefits from decades of increasing genre maturity. He brings to the story a sheen of complexity and sophistication, both technical and emotional: The systems he describes are all-too fallible and interdependent, the psychology of the characters is multi-layered and never quite predictable. (Though the caricatural pure evil of Quinn Dexter does get tiresome after a while) This is a space-opera from the nineties, and the easy simplistic solutions of earlier decades don’t work. (Well, shouldn’t work: The conclusion of the trilogy is deus ex machina, but not unsatisfying so. There is considerable progress made on all fronts by this point in the story, and the characters are allowed to resolve their conflicts by themselves.)
You can’t expect a 4000+ pages story to be simple, and indeed the plotting can get hilariously convoluted at times, though never quite unbelievable. Such a large story-space allows Hamilton to cover a lot of thematic ground, so don’t be surprised to go from horror to romance to action to contemplation in a short time. Surprisingly enough, Hamilton is able to juggle all the balls at once and seldom strikes a false note.
Best of all for a series of this size is the impression that it’s compulsively readable. Not only are characters compelling in themselves, but Hamilton has polished his prose until it can be read seamlessly, and with enough repeating information to keep everyone up-to-date even though they’re not paying enough attention. It’s bad enough to split a series in six thick books; it would be unbearable to make the reader fight his way through it.
But no fighting here; once the initial volume is read, the rest is smooth sailing, with occasional pauses for whooping when the heroes make another nick-of-time escape. Indeed, Hamilton’s Confederation is like an onion whose layers a peeled away as we progress in the story. Human and alien historical conspiracies are revealed even as a full intergalactic war is in full progress and the very metaphysical nature of the universe is explained. It’s a heady trip, well worth the investment. (Though I’m still not sure that all the pieces -with a particular emphasis on the “ghosts”- fit together.)
Two other books form a loose addition to the Night’s Dawn Trilogy. While I haven’t yet bought The Confederation Handbook, a “non-fiction” look at the universe created by Hamilton for the series (too expensive in British import), I can give a marginal recommendation to his related short story collection A Second Chance at Eden. Bringing together seven stories set before the start of the trilogy, A Second Chance at Eden helps to flesh out some events mentioned as background in the other six books. Most notable are the title novella, a murder mystery incidentally describing the events leading up to the foundation of Edenism, and “Escape Route”, which features Joshua Calvert’s father in an unrelated but enjoyable “empty alien ship” adventure. (That last novella is hilariously spoiled in The Naked God). I also liked “Sonnie’s Edge” and “The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rosa”, but couldn’t muster any interest for the other three stories. Your mileage may vary. You may read the collection before starting the trilogy, though be warned that the trilogy is generally easier to read.
Being someone who naturally avoids long series, I was unaware of how deeply you could invest yourself in a multi-volume
story. How the various character threads cross each other in delightful coincidences. How you could really get to care about them through countless adventures. How deeply you could establish a universe. How just darn good it is to lose myself in a story for weeks at a time, rather than read in a day or two and throw back the book on my shelves. A great feeling, and I didn’t even have to pick up a fat fantasy trilogy.
In short, the Night’s Dawn trilogy gets a strong seal of approval from the offices of this reviewer, through an unbeatable combination of readability, imagination, complexity, respect for the audience and some wonderful characters. Sure, it’ll take a while before you’re done reading, but trust me. It’s all worth it.