Perhaps a little introduction is in order. The world that Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood are set in is a hard sci-fi space opera universe. It’s thousands of years in the future, humanity has died out, but our assistants, the humanioid bots we built in our image, kept on trucking. They populated the galaxy (in the first book) and now, some thousands of years later, they have expanded by very slow means to other star systems. Of course, humanoids aren’t optimized for every environment, so the essential components of synthetic life take lots of forms, little bat creatures, mermaids, squid, worms, etc. Everything that used to be biological is now biomechanical, but still simulates multi-cell life.
Neptune’s Brood is a find-the-macguffin novel, the heroine Krina Alizond-114 is the forked prodigy of an intergalactic banker. In order to expand her reach, her mother forks 8 or 16 copies of herself into new bodies every so often. These copies are born with a debt-load (I told you this book was about money, right?), and if they manage to survive the years of indentured servitude to become real people, they may still be laboring under a giant debt load for their initial construction or housing. Our heroine is a specialist in a certain type of intergalactic banking fraud, and is trying to track down one of her fork-sisters who seems to be in trouble, and who might know the location of said macguffin.
Before Charles Stross wrote Neptune’s Brood, he read a book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and in order to understand how Neptune’s Brood formed, you should have at least a passing interest in money and debt. In trying to find her fork-sister, Krina is also trying to find a certain financial instrument, one that becomes clear as the story unfolds. Along the way she encounters religious zealots (spreading the flesh of humanity to the stars), pirates, Queens and cops, and more.
As I finished Neptune’s Brood, I had a real sneaking suspicion that I’d read the book before, which is either me pushing my impressions upon it, or a real reflection of Stross’s tendency to mash things up. It finally struck me that Neptune’s Brood felt a lot like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in pacing, complete with pirates who are more than they initially appear. The pirates are almost like… well, the closest comparison I can come up with is Morpheus and his crew from The Matrix. It’s a bad comparison, but I think it relays tone.
This isn’t Stross’s first rodeo, and the book is well written, tightly paced and generally well built. The heroine is likable and relatable, and although she narrates the story largely from her perspective (so we know she gets through these scrapes), there’s still some tension. The ending is satisfying, though it leaves the reader wondering about its impact on the greater galaxy and the characters we’ve met.
If you like space operas, and especially if you like finance, Neptune’s Brood is easy to recommend. I’d probably read Saturn’s Children first (ignore the cover), because I think it’s probably a bit more ambitious and sets up the rules of the world more completely. They aren’t really connected beyond sharing the same galaxy, though, so feel free to jump in here.