Before I start, I should highlight that this is a sequel, to last year's 'Lightless' (click here for review) and you should really read that book before this one. In fact, if you haven't read 'Lightless,' you should stop reading this review RIGHT NOW because the way that book unfolds means that it's impossible for this review not to be one huge frickin' spoiler.
So, assuming that you've read 'Lightless,' I'll start in on its sequel and the first point to make is that 'Supernova' is a completely different book. 'Lightless' was a suspense thriller which unfolded on a spaceship secluded in the outer reaches of the solar system. Like a play, it was driven by the dialogue of a small cast of well-defined characters in a restricted number of locations. By comparison, 'Supernova' is none of those things.
It's constructed by weaving three strands of story closer together as the book runs on. Each of the six chapters begins with a brief scene set six months before Constance Harper and her fellow revolutionaries destroy the planet Earth towards the end of 'Lightless.' None of these scenes run for long and they mostly serve to flesh out how the events in that book came about. The rest of this book, where the real meat is, alternates between a pair of very different stories.
The first returns us to that spaceship, the Ananke, which is a sprawling construction powered by a miniature black hole. Its population has been reduced by the events of the previous book to only two. One is Dr. Althea Bastet, the ship's engineer and only human survivor (the crew previously numbered three.) The other is Ananke herself, or the computer which runs her, which gained sentience through deliberate infection by a virus.
This section explores the relationship between the two, which had already become defined as 'mother' and 'daughter' by the end of 'Lightless,' along with various expected concepts such as mortality, humanity and isolation. Ananke is a very powerful child and when she decides to find her 'father,' Mattie Gale, there are serious ramifications indeed. While this section refuses to remain within the isolation it so powerfully evokes, it's the philosophical half of the book, even when it sees action.
The second follows Constance, the Keyser Soze of 'Lightless,, as she both increases her victories over the dystopian System upon planet after planet and struggles with what might come after victory. She zips all around the solar system and her fleet merges and divides along with the action. She's as far from isolated physically as could be imagined, but she finds herself isolated in truth as populations refuse to react in ways she expects and even her trusted lieutenants drift away for reasons she doesn't grasp. This is the action half of the book, even when it gets philosophical.
The least important problem I had with the book was how these alternating sections were separated only by a couple of blank lines but those lines had an annoying habit of showing up invisibly at the end of pages. On more than one occasion I had to backtrack because I thought I was in one strand, only for a name to be mentioned and highlight that I was in the other.
A more important problem is how Constance Harper was depicted. I appreciate the big picture, the way in which it's easier to conquer than to lead and easier to wage war than to wage peace. I also appreciate how the woman who had successfully mastered the art of leading a revolution with a small but dedicated team is challenged when trying to master the art of leading a war with a large and varied fleet. I was just expecting the former to be a lot more aware of what was happening around her than she is as the latter.
Also, Higgins struggles to make us care. One of her biggest achievements in 'Lightless' was to blur who we would read as good and who evil. I mentioned in my review that some characters move from one to the other and back as we learn more about them. Here, Constance begins the book having destroyed my home planet, collapsing most of it and irradiating the rest. It's hard to see such a person as a heroine rather than a terrorist, even if she fights an evil empire; but unlike our thoughts of Leontios Ivanov or the crew of the Ananke in 'Lightless,' we don't really change how we feel about her at any point from beginning to end.
It doesn't help that the System itself is kept relatively out of the book. We're not watching a war in the way we do in the novels of David Weber or even E. E. 'Doc' Smith, we're watching how it affects one person and it's an awkward approach to maintain. Constance ploughs through this story because of entropy as much as her own deeds. It's easy to read this as inevitable and hard to think, in hindsight, of ways in which her path could have been altered.
Personally, I cared more about a variety of supporting characters, most of whom aren't given much attention, receiving focus only while they're drawn towards Constance and losing it once they drift away again. Most of these changes in allegiance, which are massively important in context, are little explored. Again, we're generally watching how they affect Constance, rather than whoever happens to be on the other side of the change.
I also cared more about the solar system as a whole and we don't get much opportunity to see the people who are freed. Perhaps that's deliberate, as we're watching from Constance's perspective, but I wanted to see much more about the people of Mars, Venus and the others, each freed by Constance's revolution. We get a little of this on Venus, because that's important to the progression of the story, but it is only a little and more background from the perspective of those not fighting would have been welcome on each planet Constance bulldozes through.
It'll be interesting to see how these books are received. This is a direct sequel to 'Lightless' because what happens here does so immediately after what happens there and some of the characters who survive that first book continue on here. Yet the two are as different as chalk and cheese and the audience who appreciates one may not appreciate the other.
Personally, I'm much more of a fan of 'Lightless' than I am of 'Supernova', but there are others (see the other review of 'Lightless' at the Nameless Zine) who will probably prefer this one for precisely the reasons I don't. ~~ Hal C F Astell