One is naturally intimidated when taxed with writing a review for a book that deserves as much positive attention as Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Will my words adequately advertise all its good qualities? What does my review add that other people’s haven’t already?
So first of all, let me start by saying that if you’re reading my reviews because you like my books, if you like the way I construct a spec fic safe space where you don’t have to worry that the characters you’ve grown the most attached to are the ones to die in Act 3, and if you like the found families I create and gender diversity I celebrate, then yes, this book is like that. It’s not like characters are never sad or even devastated in Long Way but there’s an overall positive coating that makes the book a sort of healing bath.
In some senses it’s structured more like a single season of a television show instead of a movie — the adventures of the ship’s crew are more episodic than all part of a continuous arc, with the various stakes in the episodes rising as we near the “season finale.” If there is an arc, it’s the crew becoming more and more like family, as the n00b audience insert character, a human woman from Mars who signs on as a clerk to help the ship deal with paperwork and bureaucracy, integrates into their culture and learns about the various nonhuman species on board. She’s learned about a lot of species in university, but nothing compares with the real thing.
The book gives you so many characters to love. My favorites were Kizzy Shao, who’d be a Manic Pixie if she wasn’t actually the center of her own narrative instead of the catalyst in someone else’s–she labeled the caf and decaf teas “happy tea” and “boring tea” and knitted hats for computer equipment, and “Dr. Chef”, the nickname for the ship’s medic and cook who belongs to a Totoro-shaped alien species that starts out female, then turns male in old age. I loved him for being generally nurturing and adorable, but he belongs to a species with an incredibly tragic history.
In fact, a lot of the book is “here’s an adventure, but what’s really interesting about this chapter is more worldbuilding.” I usually hate the worldbuilding parts of spec fic, but Chambers explained hers so gracefully–integrated into the narrative rather than dry exposition–that I was never confused. For example, another crewmember belongs to a species of sentient, feathered reptiles who love to cuddle, especially in huge groups, and have elaborate childrearing and family structures.
During the course of the book, two of the female characters become involved with each other and stay together, but I won’t mention which two because it’s not often one reads a book where something canonically queer happens but you have the pleasure of not knowing exactly what it’ll be from the beginning. I will also warn for character death, but it’s not any of the women involved in the f/f relationship. It’s a sad moment, but the book needs it because after so many snatches from the jaws of tragedy I think getting to “win” inevery single adventure would have made the happy parts of the book feel cheap. Chambers did take a lot of “easy ways out” — things work and ships don’t blow up; people find out about secrets and don’t shut out the deceptive character for several chapters of angsty cold shoulders — so while that is always really soothing to read, a little sadness sort of justified all that, if you will.
I have to note that I imagined the ship’s cantankerous “annoying coworker” character, Corbin who maintains the algae the ship uses as fuel, as Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest. Not so much because of anything Chambers wrote, but because Rickman’s character when he was playing the actor–not his TV alien role–was so cranky that it just seemed to fit, and I couldn’t shift it. Hope that’s okay!
If Long Way has a theme besides “found family in space”, it’s how to deal with the inherent violence of being alive, or maybe I mean the inherent responsibility we adopt as sentients for being sentient, to avoid violence or at least apply it judiciously. Weapons and who decides to not only use them but even possess them comes up again and again, and Dr. Chef’s backstory is a poignant cautionary tale (it’s laid on thick but so interesting that who gives a shit?) Dr. Chef is a good microcosm of what makes this book so appealing to me–besides the polyamorous cuddling dragon lady–in that he’s had a rough life, but now he’s surrounded by affection and pursuits that make him happy.
The book also goes into issues of bodily autonomy in several different ways, and into the question of whether artificial intelligence should be treated with the same respect and rights as living beings.
I do not remember any major triggers other than that there is character death. Also, Corbin uses slurs, but they’re in-universe slurs–this is a universe where interspecies bigotry is a major thing and often addressed in-text, but there’s no trace of homophobia/heteronormativity or even racism, since humanity seems to have mostly evened out to a random brown.
(Also, the f/f relationship isn’t the only queerness in the story; Kizzy has two dads, I’m fairly sure the reptile aliens don’t give a shit, and there are various alien forms of nonbinary gendering that don’t parse to human models of nonbinary gender.)