Audiobook Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 4 of Wayfarers
Publisher: HarperAudio (April 20, 2021)
Length: 9 hrs and 55 mins
Narrator: Rachel Dulude
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth book in the Wayfarer sequence, and this time author Becky Chambers brings readers to Gora, an unremarkable planet in every way except for its serendipitous proximity to a number of more popular, well-traveled worlds. This makes it the perfect rest stop for starships making the long journey across the galaxy, a place for travelers to refuel, restock, and refresh. Here, a Laru named Ouloo also runs a establishment called the Five-Hop One stop along with her adolescent child, Tupo.
As the book opens, Ouloo and Tupo are preparing the Five-Hop for a day like any other. On the agenda are three scheduled arrivals, each vessel carrying visitors from a different species on their way to different worlds for different purposes. Speaker is a member of the elusive Akarak who must travel all the time in a bio-suit because her species cannot breathe oxygen. Roveg is a heavily-carapaced being known as a Quelim, making his way to a very important appointment. And Captain Tem is an Aeluon, whom Wayfarer fans would recognize as Ashby’s lover Pei from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—en route to meet him now, in fact.
All three guests only intended to stay on Gora for a quick break before heading back out on their way. Unfortunately, a sudden disruption in comms puts a damper on those plans, delaying travel until repairs can be made to the damaged satellites. With nothing else to do but wait, mingle and socialize to pass the time, our five aliens at the Five-Hop One Stop decide to come together and share their stories.
My favorite thing about the Wayfarer series? Every new novel is a completely separate and unknown adventure to discover. The thing I like the least? Every new novel is a completely separate and unknown adventure to discover. It’s possible that I have been spoiled by A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few, the latter of which whose balance of character building and storytelling was as close to perfection as you can get. After all, I just love a good narrative with conflict, along with all the ups and downs that come with it.
The style of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, on the other hand, is more in the vein of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—episodic, multi-thread, with no central force to drive or guide it. Unlike the first book though, the entirety of this one takes place over a short time, in a single setting. I waited and waited for something close to a conventional plot to emerge, but it never came. It’s just not that kind of book. So what kind of book is it? It’s how I would imagine my crew from Mass Effect would be like during their off-hours behind the scenes, hanging out in the mess hall of my ship, shooting the shit. And it’s also a lot like the Breakfast Club, except instead of kids with nothing in common, these are aliens with nothing in common (and they actually want to know more about each other). But as their time on Gora grows longer, with some of them having urgent places to go and things to do, gradually patience starts to wear thin, and inevitably a couple of the aliens start to get on each other’s nerves.
Still, this being a Wayfarers book, you can rest assured that won’t lead to anything more serious than a mild tiff. To be sure, this latest installment is of the same tone as its predecessors, if not the same style. The mood is sweet, with themes that are charming and sentimental, just bordering on campy. I loved the description of the Five-Hop as an intergalactic truck stop in the synopsis, though in my mind I likened it more to a cozy bed and breakfast, especially given the way Ouloo so lovingly takes care of her property and guests (tending a garden with plants from different worlds in order to help make her diverse clientele feel more at home, as well as her cakes—who can forget her cakes?) The individual characters’ backgrounds also meant getting snippets of many separate stories, mostly related to their respective lives, cultural traditions and familial relationships. While it could get pretty heavy-handed at times, overall the novel delivered some earnest messages about the sharing of values and problems between different species, portraying this engagement in a realistic light without going full on kumbaya.
All told though, nothing happens here that’s all that surprising, and those messages conveyed were also pretty much as expected. No earthshattering revelations here! Furthermore, the aliens, as unique and strange they might seem to us, all have fairly predictable problems like your standard hang-ups about relationships with parents, kids, siblings, lovers, society and the like. Even the story’s conflicts, what little there were, felt highly manufactured and contrived. Most frustrating of all is the sense that the best and most interesting parts of our characters’ lives will be just around the corner…but of course, that’s when the book ends.
But hey, if the whole of your book is to give off the warm and fuzzies, I guess none of that stuff really matters.
All in all, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within was a good read, but compared to the other Wayfarer books, I would probably put it at the bottom of the stack. Sadly, it does sound like this will be the last one of the series, but since each installment stands alone with only slight elements and references to connect them to each other, I’m glad all four novels can be taken as a complete body of work showcasing the beauty and wonders of the universe Chambers has crafted with such care and attention. I would definitely recommend reading them all to experience the full scope.
Audiobook Comments: This was actually my first time doing a Wayfarers book in audio, and I really enjoyed it. Rachel Dulude’s narration was expert and powerful, and it all made for a wonderfully engaging listen.