After finishing Pandora’s Star (2004) I had basically no choice but to start Judas Unchained (2005). It is not so much a sequel to the first book as the continuation of the story. Together, Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained make a single story with a start, middle and end, also known as the Commonwealth Saga. A massive epic of 2000 pages! Pandora’s Star didn’t end with a climax and a resolution, but with a cliffhanger. Shit is hitting the fan, and then the pages stop.
After the destructive events at the end of Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained first takes a step back and a deep breath. The threat of the Prime aliens has stopped for now and the story moves back into the human Commonwealth and the smaller tragedies unfolding there. The threat hasn’t disappeared though, and through the first 250 pages we anxiously await the next move by the aliens. It actually takes quite a while for the action to come back again. The book is a bit uneven about that.
In Judas Unchained, Hamilton’s plot finally starts to integrate the loose strands. That means that some side plots and unrelated storylines from Pandora’s Star that at first seemed like an overload of characters and settings are now given a purpose in the story. For example, one of Pandora’s Star’s plot was about a crime investigation that went on through the whole book and in the end it was resolved. You the reader might scratch your head and wonder why Hamilton put in this plot in the first place because it all seemed so unrelated to the larger story. But in Judas Unchained we see that the crime investigation set the background for a couple of characters who then emerged out of that plotline, changed to fulfill their eventual role in the larger story.
So, the first positive reader experience in Judas Unchained is to feel like the story is becoming a more cohesive whole. There is also the looming danger of the aliens and you’re just waiting for that to break through. That is the right use of a sequel: you don’t have to introduce the world and you can build on the tension that was introduced in the first book.
What is really good about both the Commonwealth books (but I forgot to mention this before) is how Hamilton integrates non-SF stories into his SF universe. He seems a very capable crime writer and juggles interesting murder mystery plots into the story. Also his descriptions of the political maneuvering of powerful families are well-written and sound intelligent. There are also some fantasy elements in the story and all these non-SF parts somehow take part in the same universe. Besides these good points, the same critiques of Pandora’s Star also still apply here: the characters are simple and the story could use some trimming. Characters are easily remembered but are also caricatures. And for some storylines, even at the end it still isn’t clear why there were put in.
In the end, though, Judas Unchained isn’t as satisfying as it could have been. The main problem is that the book chooses to focus on the wrong villain. Mild spoilers here. Pandora’s Star is one giant setup for Judas Unchained and focused on the outbreak of war with the Primes, and just when they attack, Pandora’s Star ends. You’d expect Judas Unchained to be filled with a lot of space war action but there isn’t. The whole Primes plot, which is just about the main plot of the saga, turns meager, and the real climax of Judas Unchained is a chase. I guess what happened for Peter F. Hamilton is that the book started to write itself. He had so many characters and plot elements going on that he no longer had the space to focus on the most interesting element of the entire saga.