Two hundred and fifty years ago, the planet Bienvenido was expelled from the Void, ending up orbiting a lonely star in intergalactic space, 23 million light-years from the Milky Way galaxy. The people of Bienvendio lost their Void-imbued telepathic powers but regained the ability to develop technology. They now go into battle against the alien Fallers using jet aircraft and primitive space rockets. And they are still, gradually, losing the war. The arrival of a child from the Commonwealth acts as a catalyst for the final showdown between humans and Fallers, a battle that the humans cannot afford to lose.
Night Without Stars is a more momentous book than it first appears. It's the second half of the Chronicle of the Fallers duology which began with The Abyss Beyond Dreams, but it's also the eighth and - reportedly - concluding novel set in the Commonwealth universe. Hamilton kicked off this setting with 2002's stand-alone, near-future novel Misspent Youth before taking it into far-future space opera territory with the excellent Pandora's Star. Night Without Stars draws an end to this sequence of books, which is both a cause for disappointment - it still feels like there's a lot of untapped potential to the setting - and also excitement, as Hamilton will be moving into a new milieu for his next project, a new trilogy.
Night Without Stars is, again, mostly set in Bienvenido, but it's no longer the same planet we saw in Abyss. Being expelled from the Void means that its people can now develop electricity and industry, meaning high-powered machine guns, aircraft, motor vehicles, spacecraft (based on Soyuz space capsules)...and nukes. Unfortunately, it also means losing their telepathic powers which provided a more reliable means of exposing Fallers, hostile aliens able to mimic human form. Although the better technology makes it easier to eliminate the Fallers when they are found and to destroy their orbiting spacecraft, it cannot do anything to expose the Faller nests on the planet itself and the Faller numbers are multiplying.
As is his wont, Hamilton sets up an enormous, complicated and multi-stranded storyline and a large cast of characters and then orchestrates events like Napoleon sending troops into battle. We flip between different locations, characters and events with rapid and enviable ease, the plot building up an irresistible momentum in the process. Hamilton's characters are fairly standard archetypes and that continues here, with no major breakout personalities like the irrepressible Paula Myo (who still manages to check in, despite being 23 million light-years from where the action is), but they're a likable bunch: the back-country isolationist warden who inadvertently is given guardianship of the most important item on the planet; the gung-ho astronaut whose curiosity gets the better of him; and one of the survivors from the previous novel who is functionally immortal and indestructible, but finds that is no help whatsoever in solving the Faller crisis once and for all.
Just as The Abyss Beyond Dreams melded hard, posthuman SF with steampunk, so Night Without Stars switches things up by introducing historical elements. Bienvenido's technology has reached the level of the 1950s or 1960s, which is a big improvement on where they were but still not good enough to stop the alien menace, putting our Commonwealth-born heroes used to instant teleportation and traversing the galaxy in weeks on the back foot. There's also the problem that Bienvendio's government is an effective dictatorship, but Hamilton clearly had his fill of ideological battles in the previous novel. This time around there are musings on whether the planet could survive as a democracy given the overwhelming threat of the Fallers, but overall there is less of a political bent to this novel than the previous one.
Where there is a tremendous, relentless sense of pace. The novel takes place in a period of about four weeks and once it gets going in the first few pages, it just does not stop. Catastrophes multiply, pages fly past and the book become fiendishly addictive. This is typical of Hamilton and if Night isn't quite as unputdownable as his finest novels - The Reality Dysfunction and Pandora's Star - it's still nipping at their heels. This is a 700-page hardcover novel that feels as tightly-paced and immaculately-structured as the finest 300-page thriller.
Some weaknesses do creep in. There is the feeling that the Fallers could really have won the conflict at almost any time since the events of Abyss and the timing of events is a little on the convenient side. There's also the sheer number of flukes of good luck our heroes have in finding a final solution to the crisis. The fact that our Commonwealth characters are functionally immortal - if they failed and all died then they would be re-lifed at some future point - does also remove some tension from proceedings even if human immortality is a core feature of the setting. Finally, the chapters set back in the Commonwealth feel like a slight indulgence. Understandably so, if this is indeed the final Commonwealth novel, but characters from as far back as Misspent Youth showing up does feel a little random without this knowledge. More seriously, it feels like the Commonwealth has become as immortal and unbeatable as Iain M. Banks's Culture at this point, and a bit more of an interrogation of the society's problems would be interesting beyond the occasional character musing it can be a bit boring.
But ultimately Night Without Stars (****½) is standard and classic Peter F. Hamilton: bursting at the seams with good ideas, unfolding with a relentless and unstoppable pace, and it's just a tremendously fun and smart piece of SF. The novel will be released next week in both the UK and USA.