The first volume, Echoes of Earth introduced us to a group of engrams, the uploaded personalities that were humanity's first interstellar explorers. It chronicled their first contact experiences with the generous Spinners and the inimical Starfish. We saw them learn to use the FTL devices left behind the Spinners, a journey which took us to the aftermath of the solar system's Spike, a devestating Vingean singularity, and the AI wars that destroyed the inner solar system and gave rise to a new post-human civilisation. As hope faded in the face of the implacable Starfish, we followed their struggles to contact and warn the remnants of humanity.
This second volume, Orphans Of Earth starts a day or so after the first closes. The few survivors of humanity are continuing to attempt to rescue the remaining engram colonies before the Starfish arrive, and to recover as many Spinner artifacts as possible. It's a disheartening struggle. Peter Alander, a flawed engram, and Caryl Heitz, the last survivor of Earth, must unite the fragile simulated personalities and struggle to rebuild, and perhaps someday fight back. But in the aftermath of a Spinner event they find a mystery: someone else is using Spinner gifts. Enemies or allies? It's a question of diplomacy versus aggression as the raggle taggle remains of the human race make a real first contact with an unexpected visitor. And it's a new start for Peter Alander, and a possibility of redemption.
Willams and Dix are writing epic space opera here, hopping all over the inhospitable local stellar group. Their story is one of an inimical galaxy, full of traps for the unwary, and of runaway technological singularities. We're dealing with the Fermi paradox again, and the prospect of a galaxy run by automated gardeners that prune civilisations as they move out into space. The reader is left a watcher in the ruins, wondering if there is any hope at all, if this is what waits in the dark between the stars.
While Orphans Of Earth may be the middle volume of a trilogy, it's a story that proceeds at a pace, from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, from mystery to mystery. The plot moves forward, driven by the inexorable force of the Starfish, and the threat of extinction. It's a story where the main characters are hanging by a thread, and total destruction is but a moment away. Williams and Dix handle the suspense effectively, cutting between scenes with a cinematic flair. There's a little confusion with a flashback subplot, but everything resolves at the end of the story - another cliff hanger leaving the reader gasping and waiting for the next book in the sequence...
There's an element of Lovecraftian horror here mixed with the hard as steel SF, especially in the climactic scenes. However, all in all, this is an excellent modern space opera, dark and brooding. Now to wait a year for volume 3.