Book Review: Betrayal on Orbis 2

Betrayal on Orbis 2
The Softwire, book 2
by P.J. Haarsma

Johnny Turnbull – JT to his friends – is a softwire: he has the rare and highly prized ability to communicate mentally with computers. But JT and his friends are indentured servants. They were born from frozen embryos on a seed-ship, and their parents, who were already dead before the children were born, sent the children to the Rings of Orbis in hopes of a better life. JT and the other children will have to work off their parents’ debt for the passage as servants on Orbis; when their term is ended, they will have the opportunity to apply to become citizens.

In the first book, Virus on Orbis 1, JT had to solve the problem of a malfunction with the central computer, while trying to prove that he wasn’t the once causing the problem. Now, JT, his sister Ketheria, and the other children in their group have other problems. Their guarantor, Weegin, is essentially bankrupt, and instead of turning the children over to the Keepers as directed, he takes them to Orbis 2 to sell them.

JT ends up with a new job, communicating with the Samirans, huge aliens who live in the water and are responsible for cooling the crystals harvested on Orbis. Because of his softwire abilities, JT is the only one who can communicate directly with the Samirans. The Samirans are upset, and it’s JT’s job to find out why before the Samirans can disrupt the upcoming harvest of the critical Crystal of Life. If he succeeds, he’ll be a hero on Orbis. If he fails, the consequences will be enormous. But JT learns that there are dirty secrets lurking under the surface of Orbis, and that there is more at stake than success or failure of the harvest.

Betrayal on Orbis 2 is the kind of outer space adventure that I loved in middle school. With non-stop excitement, rich world building, and lots of cool aliens and technology, this is a great book for science fiction fans and reluctant readers. JT is an interesting and well-developed character, and his character development is well-done within the context of the story without slowing down the action. JT struggles with wanting to do what is right, but wanting to protect himself and his friends, two goals that are sometimes at odds. In one powerful scene, JT, who has been made controller of the group by the guarantor, is ordered to punish one of the other children who has been a bully and a problem for JT and the other children. JT knows that it would be wrong, though, and refuses to do it, until the guarantor threatens JT’s sister if he doesn’t perform the punishment.

Many of the minor characters are not as well developed, although the bully Switzer is more fully developed in this book than in the first one, and in many ways becomes a sympathetic character while still remaining a thorn in JT’s side. Haarsma excels at creating sympathetic villians, who are convincingly hateful but have enough pathos to make them “human,” even the aliens. In fact, some of the alien secondary characters are more interesting than the human ones.

You could probably read Betrayal on Orbis 2 without having read the first book, but I think it will make more sense if you read Virus on Orbis 1 first. Go ahead and read them both; The Softwire is a great science fiction series. Put it in the hands of reluctant readers and watch them get hooked.

Betrayal on Orbis 2 will be published on March 25, 2008.

Haarsma has set up a foundation to encourage reluctant readers and to help provide books for libraries, schools, and other institutions in need. Click here for more information about the The Kids Need to Read Foundation.

There’s also a multi-player online game (MMORPG) associated with the books; I haven’t played it, but it looks really cool. I might actually try it! Click here for the Rings of Orbis game.