This is the last book on the Hugo Awards Nominee list for this year. I will cast my ballot in the next few days. This book is also one of the Sad Puppy nominations. It is what they feel is an award-winning science fiction/fantasy novel. I'll address my feelings on that in conclusion. But first, here is the publisher's summary of the book.
Twenty years after the elemental conflict that nearly tore apart the cosmos in The Saga of Seven Suns, a new threat emerges from the darkness. The human race must set aside its own inner conflicts to rebuild their alliance with the Ildiran Empire for the survival of the galaxy.
Galactic empires clash, elemental beings devastate whole planetary systems, and factions of humanity are pitted against each other. Heroes rise and enemies make their last stands in the climax of an epic tale seven years in the making.
This is book one of a new trilogy set in The Universe of the Saga of Seven Suns. This new trilogy is The Saga of Shadows. It is a long book; over 22 hours long as an audio production.
The book has a cast of dozens. There is no single protagonist, though there is a singular antagonist. There were so many characters introduced in the first third of the book, it made it difficult to track who everyone was, and what they were doing. As the story proceeded and the individual character plot arcs converged, diverged, and then re-converged, this confusing panoply of characters sorted itself out eventually, and it was easier to track the various character plot arcs and how the arcs related to one another. This is not a problem of the book so much as a problem of the listener. My advise is to just go with it, and the author will make it clear as the story progresses. The book does have a satisfactory conclusion, one that did surprise me in a book that was remarkably absent surprises, though it is far from the end of the story. There are definitely two more books to go.
The main plot arc, within which all the character arcs play themselves out (or at least conclude for the time being,) is immense. It is trilogy spanning, as any epic fantasy would be. Though this story takes place in space and involves spaceships, it is fantasy - classic space opera. I don't say that just because the ships can travel faster than light. It's also because there is no scientific basis for most of the alien races, both good and bad, which inhabit the human explored section of the local spiral arm. I will give Kevin Anderson one nod, he has a very vivid imagination when it comes to creating aliens. Coming up with convincing aliens who are not just humans in makeup like some STTOS episode is difficult. Kevin Anderson pulls it off, though none of his aliens are completely new and unique. They are, however, portrayed in new ways which was entertaining. I won't say more because spoilers.
One of the litmus tests I apply to fiction is the real person test. Do the characters strike me as real people? Do they have depth and complications, or are they caricatures and stereotypes? With the dozens of characters in this book, I'd like to say one of them is a fully rounded person with complicated thought processes and motivations. However, that is not the case. The characters are as two-dimensional as The Brady Bunch. I don't normally resort to other reviews, but Publishers Weekly stated it best, "the multitudinous characters offer more variety than depth." That does not mean I didn't get attached to these characters. There are a couple I absolutely love and a few I despise. However, it would be better if the traits I both love and despise could be wrapped up in one fully rounded person. One character does come very close to this goal - Tom Rom.
In the end, this book, though entertaining, is totally formulaic. The author thought of a giant, galaxy encompassing plot arc, came up with a cast of Jan Brady clones, and then wrote individual plot arcs for each of them, bringing them closer together and further away as each of their individual novelettes played out. The chapters are uniformly short and each chapter dwells on the actions of a single character. You could literally pull all the chapters labeled Tom Rom out of the story, rebind them and sell them as their own book. You probably wouldn't even have to include much background on the characters with which that smaller book's protagonist interacts.
Another recurring construct in this book is that with all these characters, they are always paired off male and female. It's like everyone is a couple. It's a Leave it to Beaver world where Ward and June meet, fall in love and walk into the sunset (or fire storm) hand in hand. This masquerades in some instances as a professional relationship, but it's always male and female. Perhaps this is how wholesome books are written, but it's not how the real world works no matter how much you may wish otherwise. However, there were two minor female characters that were not paired off by the end of the book. They were warriors and it was a student-teacher relationship, like Sensei and acolyte. I suppose you could count the human Rememberer and his apprentice as one of those relationships as well. Totally professional; nothing to see here. Move along. Completely boring.
In the end, I have to ask myself why this book is on the Hugo Award ballot. It is an entertaining book, but it's definitely a three out of five stars. As a work of writing it is not spectacular in the least. Besides the character issues, descriptions are adequate but not inspiring. The story is engaging but it's not original. The aliens are interesting, but again not original. I've seen many of the aliens in The Monster Manual. But this book is on the Hugo Award ballot, and now I have to decide if it deserves a vote. I'll come to that decision soon enough, but I can tell you now it certainly isn't one of my top three candidates. Frankly, The Martian was a much, much better book and it didn't make the ballot. And yes, I blame the Sad Puppy voters for that injustice, but I'll get over it. Perhaps Andy Weir will pick up some well deserved awards next year after the movie releases. But right now, I have a ballot to think about.