This week, I’m very lucky to be reviewing one of my most hotly anticipated books of the year. Yes, it’s time for one last sojourn into the Wayfarers universe, courtesy of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
The planet of Gora has little going for it aside from its convenient location – situated at a major junction of interspatial tunnels, it serves as a rest stop for those travellers waiting for their allotted spot in the queue. On a mission to make every member of every species welcome, the enterprising Ouloo and her child Tupo run the Five-Hop-One-Stop, where weary travellers can avail themselves of the bath house, dine on home-cooked cuisine and perhaps even stop by the charming Goran Natural History Museum.
It’s not long before disaster strikes, however, trapping three guests of different species on the surface along with Ouloo and Tupo (themselves four-legged, furry Laru). Roveg, an exiled Quelin (a lobster-like species), is desperate to make an urgent appointment. Pei, one of the colour speaking scale-skinned Aeulons, is keen to use her leave to meet with her human lover, a relationship which she is forced to hide from the rest of her people. Finally, Speaker – a tiny Akarak in a mechanised suit – is trying to get back to her sister, Tracker, in orbit above the planet.
There’s an undeniably relevant feeling to the setup of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, as the nature of the disaster that hits the planet forces the main characters into lockdown, unable to go anywhere or do anything. Thankfully it’s not disease that brings about the situation – that really would be a little too close to home – but technological malfunction. Nevertheless, it’s a situation which for many will be far less alien than the characters themselves. That’s another thing to note straightaway, actually; for the first time in a Wayfarers book, none of the main characters are human.
There has always been a strong theme of xenology – or “alien anthropology” – to the Wayfarers books, and this is embraced just as readily here, if not more so. With only limited knowledge of each other’s species and little else to do but talk, Roveg, Pei and Speaker find themselves swapping cultural observations, reassessing their prejudices and all in all just trying to get along as best they can (with varying degrees of success). Bustling around them is Ouloo, the most accommodating host it’s possible to be, while her adolescent offspring Tupo (yet to pick xyr gender, and a bundle of energy and flailing teenage limbs) asks their guests endearingly probing questions.
There’s all the gentle, heart-warming charm present that this situation implies. You would need a heart of stone to not warm to Roveg, for example, a gourmand who tries his best to steer conversations into safer waters, or Speaker, cut off from her twin and frantically awaiting word from her. Watching the various characters (who in essence have had an almost ambassadorial role thrust upon them) bond and solve problems is extremely satisfying. Social missteps quickly take on huge significance, with bad air trapped at the Five-Hop just as the guests are, and there’s a few of these which will likely have you wincing on behalf of their perpetrators.
There might be less in the way of action and exploration than in previous books in the series, but this certainly isn’t a case of the Wayfarers universe going out with a whimper rather than a bang; The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is every bit as readable as anything Chambers has produced so far. It is also arguably the purest distillation of many of the ideas that have come up in the preceding books too, as the characters wrestle with their preconceptions, check their privileges and attempt to find cultural touchstones to bond over, a wealth of background information on their species proving once again just how endlessly inventive Becky Chambers is as a writer. It feels inaccurate to venerate these characters for their humanity, with nary a human being among them, but perhaps the message here is that no matter our differences, we can all learn to work together. If that seems a little too twee, apologies, but it certainly seems like it’s something that’s all too easily forgotten sometimes.
All great things must come to an end, and so the end has come to pass for the Wayfarers universe. With a level of profundity that’s only to be expected by this point, Becky Chambers has closed this much-loved series with consummate skill and an abundance of warmth, not to mention typically boundless imagination.
I loved every minute of my time at the Five-Hop-One-Stop, and would certainly visit again.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is published by Hodder & Stoughton and will be released on the 18th of February. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link. Alternatively, you can order a signed copy from Waterstones through this affiliate link.