Becky Chambers' followup to her much-loved debut novel, "The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet," leaves the crew of the Wayfarer behind and focuses on a couple characters who were mostly supporting cast in the first book. Pepper is a genius with electronics and helped out the crew of the Wayfarer several times, while Lovelace used to be the Wayfarer's AI. After an accident wiped out her memories and reloaded her with her old default programming and personality, she was uploaded into a new hypertech artificial body. Unfortunately, giving AIs realistic bodies is illegal, and if she's caught, she'll be destroyed, and those who helped her will suffer severe penalties. Now Lovelace has to learn how to function out in the real world, with the aid of Pepper and her friends.
This novel follows a couple different storylines. In the first, Lovelace interacts with the world around her, chooses Sidra as her new name (Lovelace is a common program for AIs and would cause too much trouble for her if she kept it), tries to figure out ways around the limitations of her new body, cautiously makes new friends in Blue and Tak, and endures a few personal crises on her way to becoming the best person she can be.
In the second storyline, we backtrack to Pepper's childhood as Jane 23, a cloned factory slave. After she escapes into the desolate wastes of her hostile world, she must fight for her survival, with her only shelter a broken-down spaceship and her only companion an outdated but deeply loving AI named Owl.
As with Chambers' first book, the characterizations truly shine, and the compassion of the writing really drive the book forward. Pepper's lonely and frightening childhood and Lovey's lonely and frightening transition from disembodied intelligence to bipedal life form are countered beautifully by the friendships they build -- with abandoned humans, with understanding aliens, with an old AI willing to devote herself to keeping a lost child alive, and sometimes with surprise doses of kindness delivered by unexpected people -- soon after Jane's rescue from her wasteland exile, for example, she's offered a simple hug from a large, intimidating alien who understands how stressful and traumatic her new life has become.
We live in a rough and often unkind world. You deserve to enjoy some of this compassionate, diverse, welcoming, and vastly wonderful science fiction.