There are two types of sequels to wonderful stand-alone novels. There’s the failure, whether it’s a grab for cash or an earnest flop, which only serves to leave a bit of a tarnish on the luster of the original. Then there’s the improvement, the second novel that opens up a larger narrative and a deeper world. Michael Flynn’s Up Jim River is the latter. In this novel, Flynn takes the two characters that were the focus of the frame narrative of The January Dancer and sends them on an adventure of their own. In so doing, he takes the tantalizing bits of culture that litter The January Dancer and expands them into a fully realized world (or collection of worlds, more accurately) with a convoluted history and a fascinating mythology.
This mythology that Flynn imagines for his far-flung human culture is one of the delights of his Spiral Arm series. It is a mix of our own mythology and our current history, the labors of Hercules and Einstein’s theory of relativity given equal weight in the minds of his characters. I found it both interesting and poignant to find this cultural and intellectual gumbo in the midst of an interstellar adventure to find a lost spy.
Flynn’s characters in Up Jim River also continue the excellent standard set by The January Dancer, with familiar faces meeting a menagerie of new ones. The broken man Donovan takes his place as the center of this series, and reveals his own history to be as complex as that of the Spiral Arm. Donovan is a peculiar protagonist to follow, with his shattered mind and his scarred appearance, but he proves that his talents have not left him, and he even retains that core of heroism that was glimpsed at the end of The January Dancer.
All in all, Michael Flynn’s Up Jim River is exactly what the second novel of a series should be, everything good about the first novel and then some, with a hint of the continuing story to come.