Long awaited prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. The stories are taking place in the same universe, but are otherwise not connected. I don’t think that it matter what order you read them in – the important thing is that you read them.
The Qeng Ho (human traders) and the Emergents (also humans, but more top controlled) are both racing towards the OnOff star and it’s single planet. A planet inhabited by the first hi-tech alien civilisation that humanity has meet. Immense riches wait for the group what gets to trade with the aliens. The Qeng Ho and the Emergents has a small clash when they arrive at nearly the same time, won by the Emergents, but damaging both groups so much that they are forced to co-operate. A lot of the book is about the fight between the two different ways of life, as represented by the Emergents and the Qeng Ho. Most of this can be read as a long tribute to the old Heinlein and Poul Anderson stories (like Trader to the Stars). I enjoyed this part of the book a lot. Lot’s of interesting surprises and plot twists.
The other part of the book is about the aliens, which I’m sorry to say, kind of bored me. They where simply put not alien enough. Most of their story, but for a few references to extra arms and such, could be read as a quite normal story about the industrial revolution, and even if Vinge gives a good reason for this (the way of the translation) this doesn’t change the fact that it bored me and the references to the earth of today was kind of clumsy if not downright silly. A couple of hundred pages of boredom about the industrial revolution entwined in five hundred fantastic pages of intergalactic culture clash, doesn’t kill the book or even make it a bad book. It’s still one of the best books released the last ten years