After an interstellar war ended in destructive stalemate, a junior military officer is posted as a liason on a civilian ship carrying vital supplies to a damaged world. Unable to bond with the untrusting crew, and with a disabled ship threatened by piratical "scavengers" and dangerous conditions, he stumbles upon the ship's captain's plans to abandon his crew - and inadvertantly finds himself deserting the ship. On trial as a deserter he offers no defence, and is cast out, ashamed and alone. Jim has no name now, and no honour.
His old commander, Caroline Marlow, herself a survivor of the war's dangers, finds herself drawn to Jim, and tries to help him redeem himself. As she recovers from cryogenic freezer burn in the service of a paramilitary Relief service, helping shattered worlds rebuild broken terraforming schemes and struggling populations, she takes what opportunities she can to provide Jim with the road to redemption - but every time he throws it away, unable to accept acceptance. Finally, one last chance takes him as a trading factor to a marginal world at the rim of civilisation. It's there that he'll find redeption or death. Or both.
Shwartz takes Conrad's story as a template for her novel, and then uses it to explore the depths of shame - and one man's struggle to seperate shame from identity. It's a fable of reconstruction on many different levels: Jim's life, Cam's recovery from 20 years in cold sleep, and the work of Relief in the shattered worlds, even the reporter Jones' desire to return home to Earth with success in his grasp. In most hands this could be a simplistic, moralistic tale, but Shwartz is able to rise above the desire for simple stories to give us a tale twisted by uncertainty and doubt. Even the most sure characters have their dark nights of the soul, and there's far more grey here than black and white.
As we're swept along to Jim's inevitable apotheosis, we're left hoping that there's some shards of hope at the end of the shattered rainbow of his life. And there is, in the lives he's touched, and in the changes he's made. But we're left wondering - is Jim a better man because of his dishonour, or could he have achieved more unburdened by shame?
Second Chances is a long book that pulls the reader through a gripping story. Sure, it's a tale that's been told before, by one of the great writers - but it's one that becomes more and more relevant to today as history unfolds around us. This is a time for fables of reconstruction, and Susan Shwartz has delivered an apt tale for our times.