Book review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton

(image via Tor Books UK; I was going to photograph my own cover but all my enthusiastic reading left some of the letter a little less than glossy) (image via Tor Books UK; I was going to photograph my own cover but all my enthusiastic reading left some of the letter a little less than glossy)[/caption]

It is a conundrum almost as old as time itself – do the ends always justify the means?

It’s one of the central questions, if not the central question, of master sci-fi storyteller Peter F. Hamilton’s latest epic space opera masterpiece, The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which falls chronologically between The Commonwealth saga and the Void trilogy.

As you would expect from a man who is adept at conjuring up galaxy-sprawling narratives in a way few other writers are – his stories, though epic in nature, always focus closely on the characters involved and thus are intimate and relatable despite their magnificently vast settings – the book is not lacking in either storytelling ambition nor the issues it covers in its, barely appropriately enough, 674 pages.

Taking us back to The Void, an abnormal, artificially-created area of space whose boundary is forever expanding and threatening to swallow up the galaxy in which the human Commonwealth and the ancient Raiel dwell, The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a companion piece of sorts to The Void trilogy with the focus shifting to the planet of Bienvenido whose citizens, descendants of a human colony fleet, possess psychic powers thanks to the weird space and time properties of the region of space in which they dwell.

“Always demand proof of nirvana before you start following messiahs who’re selling it to you. Those guys don’t exactly have the greatest track record in the universe.” 

It is into this bizarre region of the galaxy that one of the founders of the Commonwealth, Nigel Sheldon, volunteers to venture after a series of “dreams” emanating from The Void convince both humanity and the Raiel, forever sworn to guard the boundaries of this celestial Oz, that they need to discover what makes it tick and if there is a way to stop its rapacious advance across the stars.

Once inside The Void, however, and safely on Bienvenido, a society choking under the sclerotic grip of an authoritarian regime that is collapsing onto itself in an orgy of self-indulgence and cruelty, and one tinderbox away from revolution, Nigel Sheldon discovers that there may be a way to destroy the Void saving both the inhabitants of the galaxy outside and those trapped within its unorthodox depths.

Of course nothing is ever that simple, and the lengths that Nigel Sheldon will have  to go to to call into question whether setting the people of Bienvendio free is going to be worth the price they will have to pay and the betrayals and subterfuge that will be needed to bring his wild plan to fruition.

The US cover of the book (image via Tor Books UK)
The US cover of the book (image via Tor Books UK)

Caught up in all these machinations are the revolutionaries plotting the demise of the planet’s dictatorial regime, first among them Slvasta, a gifted soldier who made his name successfully fighting the alien enemy that has endangered Bienvenido for millenia, the Fallers, his girlfriend Bethaneve and their partners in violent systemic change, Javier and Coulan.

Quite how all these disparate characters are bound together is a matter best left to Hamilton’s storytelling wizardry but suffice to say that the book, which is divided into six interlocking but discrete sections, is a thing of beauty, each of its pieces folding back into the other with an elegance and gasp-inducing magnificence.

You imagine that Hamilton must have had an enormous Excel spreadsheet or a giant noticeboard festooned with variously-coloured Post-It stuck into it to keep track of everything, so perfectly do all the pieces of this intricately-assembled and articulated jigsaw puzzle go together.

“Violence: the brutish solution of the ignorant who know they could never get enough people to vote for them.” 

And there is not an ounce of syllabic fat to be found in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, a miracle of sorts given the temptation there must have been to let the story sprawl every which way but Sunday, especially when you are as successful as Hamilton has been over the last 20 years.

Epic though its scope maybe, the book manages to make good justification for each and every scene, for the presence of each and every character, ably exploring all of the ideas put forward throughout it and bringing them, in part, to a satisfying conclusion.

The presence of well-loved characters from the Commonwealth series of novels such as intrepid, incorruptible interstellar police detective Paula Myo serve to tie the book back into the wider sagas Hamilton has told up to this point, and the promise of a sequel, Night Without Stars, assures us that Hamilton isn’t done yet with the people of The Void, and those of the wider Commonwealth.

Which is a good thing, of course, since when you are dealing with a storyteller this imaginative, this accomplished and well-versed in his craft, you want him to keep writing until he shuffles off this mortal coil.

Long may Peter Hamilton and his beautifully written, intricately-woven immersive epics reign.

If you’d like to take a look at the reasoning that went into the design of the UK cover and read an extract from the book, go to Tor Books UK who will reveal all.

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