Unlike many other reviewers, I found Great Sky River to be a disappointment for the usually hugely reliable Benford. The story is set on the distant world of Snowglade, where the ragtag survivors of the original human colonists are now permanent nomads, fleeing for their lives across the planet's wastelands from the ravenous Mechs, the creations of an intelligent alien machine civilization that recycles human body parts into myriad robotic monstrosities. Killeen, a member of one Family Bishop, remembers the Calamity, the day when the Mechs overran the Citadel where he lived, killing his wife in the process and scattering the survivors into their current life of desperation. Now all Killeen has left is his son Toby, as he and the rest of Family Bishop wander across the lonely landscape of Snowglade.
One day, as Family Bishop encounters another Family in their wanderings (a rare enough occurrence to warrant celebration), they are set upon by a particularly vicious new Mech called a Mantis. Toby is partially paralyzed in the attack, and in the aftermath it seems obvious that the Family's long-held suspicions that the Mechs are actually hunting them down with greater determination are true. (Previously it was thought that the Mechs only attacked when humans crossed their paths, and did not deliberately hunt.)
Eventually, they all encounter an actual human settlement, whose leader informs them that they are able to survive this way because they are under the protection of a renegade Mech, who keeps their little town blanketed from surveillance in exchange for the humans' assistance in its own repairs and maintenance. (It can't go get the parts itself, you see, being a renegade, but it can help the humans sneak in to where the Mechs manufacture parts out of both machine and human remains.) Killeen is asked to help in the latest series of repairs to the renegade, because he has a special advantage: all members of the Families possess Aspects, the personality constructs of long-dead men and women from far in Snowglade's colonial past, wired into their minds. But one of Killeen's Aspects has particular knowledge that most lack, namely the ability to read snatches of the Mech's language. Killeen agrees to go along on the latest expedition provided the renegade can help heal Toby. The renegade not only consents but insists Toby come, because the boy can go places the rest of them can't.
Though the premise and basic plot synopsis certainly do sound exciting, I unfortunately found the execution to be pretty monotonous and, until the finale, unremittingly grim. For most of this novel's length, the characters are running, running, running for their lives, and it begins to wear on you after a while. And it must be said that it's never really all that suspenseful, in spite of the premise. The characters are somewhat difficult to relate to; Benford has created a special dialect for them, and while this lends authenticity to the alien setting, it also makes the characters seem more than a little alien themselves, and thus distances them from us. (Benford also never explains why each of the Families is named after a chess piece: Family Bishop, Family Rook, etc.) Though my attention was reasonably held throughout, I never felt my pulse go into overdrive — and I suspect this has much to do with my inability to connect with the characters to any deep, meaningful degree.
Not until the final 75 pages or so does the story at last begin to offer up some intriguing twists and surprises. But as good as the book's final scenes turned out to be in relation to what had preceded them, it still wasn't quite enough fully to assuage my overall disappointment. But keep in mind that this book was popular upon its release and pleased many other readers and critics, so you might disagree with me on this one.
Though Benford's Galactic Center novels can, as a rule, be read as free-standing stories, Great Sky River was followed by a direct sequel, Tides of Light.