If I didn't say that Judas Unchained was a bloated exercise in writerly overindulgence that is easily three hundred pages longer and about a half-dozen plotlines more involved than it needs to be, I'd be lying. If I didn't also say that these are the very qualities that make it such a breathlessly entertaining experience to read (and read and read), I should be disbarred from ever reviewing again. Judas Unchained delivers on the promise of Pandora's Star in the only way Peter F. Hamilton knows: too much is never enough. What good is an interstellar war unless hundreds of thousands of warships are going at it at once, entire planets are lost, and a single bomb can make a star go nova? Hamilton approaches this kind of story in classic go-for-broke fashion. If the entire galaxy is my backdrop, he reckons, by golly I'm going to use it!
Hamilton tackles SF the way George R. R. Martin is tackling fantasy. He is much less consistent in structuring narrative than Martin. For all his novels' complexities, Martin's story structure is pretty much bulletproof. Even after a five-year gap, I had little to no trouble recalling people and events in A Feast for Crows. Hamilton will go off on wild tangents that won't pay off for hundreds of pages. He'll introduce characters then not get back to them for several chapters (and a typical Hamilton chapter runs over 50 pages), disorienting you until you remember who they are. He'll throw in an audacious setpiece just to make you go "whoa!" And he doesn't give a good goddamn for how politically incorrect it is that most of his female characters are so brazenly sexualized. And it's this sheer storytelling fearlessness that makes it all work. Even as I was grumbling at how overlong Judas Unchained was, there were hardly 25 pages that went by when something didn't have me by the short and curlies.
As Pandora's Star ended (again, in a quintessential Hamilton moment, literalizing the concept of the cliffhanger in hilariously in-your-face fashion), the worlds of the Commonwealth were under devastating attack by the Prime, a hive-mind organism unwittingly freed from its prison, a force field of indescribably advanced technology placed around its star by agents unknown. Twenty-three inhabited worlds have been lost, with millions of casualties and even greater numbers of refugees. And yet the Prime does have weaknesses the Commonwealth can exploit. What is slowing down progress on the defensive front is everyone's inability to appreciate what the Prime is. These aren't alien invaders; this is a single alien organism, without any human equivalent of ethics or biological imperative towards coexistence or cooperation with other species. Its ruthlessness is devastating, but also its Achilles Heel.
But while the odds against the Prime are becoming more evenly matched on the battlefield, there is another alien force potentially even more dangerous and less easy to confront. This is the Starflyer, a being whose existence has, up until now, only been believed by the Guardians of Selfhood. The Guardians have long been considered a fringe terrorist organization by the Commonwealth, but now more and more people are coming around to their belief in the Starflyer's existence. The Starflyer, argue the Guardians, deliberately manipulated humanity into its war with the Prime, so that both species would be weakened. Once this is achieved, the Starflyer plans to return from wherever it's hiding and position itself as the dominant intelligence in civilized space. What's worse is that the Starflyer has agents, humans it controls working within some of the highest ranking positions in the Commonwealth. And it's been setting the stage for this for years!
There are a couple of classic tropes Hamilton is referencing here. For one thing, there's something about how he establishes the Starflyer that's not dissimilar to Christian belief in the coming of the Antichrist, manipulating everyone into devastating war so that he may rule. (Though I suspect this aspect is entirely coincidental, the Antichrist being one of literature's archest arch-villains.) Also, the whole "enemy within" theme goes back to the Cold War Body Snatchers scenario and before. If anyone can sell old wine in new bottles so that it doesn't lose its bouquet, it's Hamilton. Thematically, almost everything here is old school, it's just been gloriously redressed.
The book has a ton of characters, as any book in excess of 800 hardcover pages will. None of them has what you'd call real depth; each has just the right amount of depth to fulfill their role in the narrative. I imagine SF readers of a more feminist bent being torn over characters like Mellanie Rescorai, whose character arc takes her from Paris Hiltonish party girl to hottie reporter upon whom much of the Commonwealth's fate hinges. (If there's anyone in this book she doesn't sleep with, it's because he was in a parallel universe at the time.) There really are very few characters here who aren't painted in broad enough strokes to cover the side of a barn. But as the whole novel is such an exercise in bombast, it's an approach to character that fits. Besides, who has time for inner reflection when we're all gonna die?
Everyone who reads this will come away with their own words of praise, and their own set of gripes. A book that covers this vast a canvas will have a little something for everyone, and a little something for no one. (Even though it gets better, I still felt the book came screeching to a halt whenever the plot thread involving Ozzie and Orion and their quest for the Silfen reared its hydra-like head.) But once again, Peter F. Hamilton proves himself SF's least inhibited purveyor of large scale space opera. You'll be wiped out by the time you get to the end of this book. But would you have it any other way? There's a sense of wonder here that's truly unchained.