Sam Maggs to thank for this fantastic read - she described this book on Twitter as a cross between Mass Effect and Firefly. That's one hell of a recommendation. This succinct and ultimately accurate review is what led me to give this book a try, and I am so glad I did.
The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet is the best book I've read all year, and probably the best hard sci-fi I've read ever.
The book concerns the colourful and diverse crew of The Wayfarer, a tunnelling ship that builds transport pathways between stellar systems by literally cutting holes through space. They have enough work to get by, but not enough to get rich - until their captain, Ashby, secures a government commission to build a tunnel to a planet whose mysterious inhabitants have only recently agreed to an alliance. The job comes with a mind-boggling payday, but will take almost a year to complete, so the crew is in for a pretty long haul.
While the eponymous small, angry planet is the overarching plot, the novel unspools in an episodic format - quite a bit happens during the year it takes for The Wayfarer to reach the tunnelling point. Everyone on the ship will find themselves tested in different ways, and the aliens on the crew give Chambers a golden opportunity to explore some pretty bizarre and unique perspectives about the nature of humanity and its relevance to the rest of the universe.
And what a universe! Chambers crafts a fascinating galaxy populated by various cultures and species, and while Humans aren't exactly endangered, they have very little influence beyond their own territories. There are massive cities built to host multiple cultures, as well as isolated frontier planets where the locals have created their own. Best of all, the rich worldbuilding is all expressed through the characters and their organic interactions within the story. Apart from a few articles here and there, there is no info dumping. The reader is free to explore and discover everything along with the Wayfarer's crew.
The novel's strongest, most outstanding selling point is the characters. I loved everyone on this ship - from Rosemary (a shy Human clerk who's never been off Mars), to Sissix (a reptilian pilot), to Dr. Chef (the most lovable alien caterpillar SpaceDad ever). Here's where the Firefly influence kicks in - while there's plenty of drama, conflict, and cultural differences, these characters truly love and care about each other. While spending a whole year together on the ship might bring up issues and baggage, at the end of the day, they're family.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a brilliant, rare science fiction novel that successfully explores vast galaxies and alien themes without sacrificing the warmth and empathy of character-based storytelling. Put down what you're reading and read this instead.