Thursday, June 19, 2008

Debut Graduate: The Stars Down Under

THE STARS DOWN UNDER by Sandra McDonald (blog) takes a mystical turn in the universe she created in her first novel, The Outback Stars. Her world was never excessively gritty, but now it is venturing into the realm of space fantasy. What do I mean by space fantasy? Think Star Wars.

However, I could be mistaken. After all, according to Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." What seems like magic now could very well turn out to have a rational science-fictiony explanation in the third volume in this series.

In The Outback Stars, the point-of-view started with Jodenny Scott and shifted between her and Terry Myell. This technique carried on into THE STARS DOWN UNDER, but while Jodenny had the starring role in book 1, Terry gets his turn in the spotlight in book 2. They are both assigned to the same military installation, this one planetside. Terry is assigned to Supply School, where he runs into some problems because he has declined to undergo "chief initiation", which is where new Chiefs--which is a military rank--are hazed. This hazing is not required, but military traditions can sometime seem like a requirement, and Terry's fellow Chiefs resent his uninitiated status.

In the meantime, a team of explorers has gotten lost in the network of teleportation spheres that Terry and Jodenny explored in the first novel. And now the spheres won't work at all. The would-be rescuers want Jodenny and Terry to try to trigger the spheres, because they were the last ones to use it. After some significant cajoling, first Jodenny tries, then Terry.

The spheres work for Terry. The space marines whip out a set of prewritten military orders that command Terry to go with them, and he must leave Jodenny behind. While searching the worlds for the lost team, Terry has a series of adventures, and the story turns into what I term a space fantasy. Often, the reader is uncertain if what he is experiencing is a dream or reality. Terry undergoes a series of trials that make any Chief initiation look like the pranks of high school boys.

And as an alien species threatens Earth, it becomes clear that Terry has become some sort of chosen one.

There were a few things that I was hoping to see in this novel that I am still waiting for. One is the final disposition of Chiba, the Chief who gave Jodenny such grief in the first novel, and who got lost in the spheres. I doubt the author forgot him, but it looks like I'll have to wait until book three to find out what happened with him. I'm sure he survived, and that he's up to no good.

Another is an explanation of the Debasement of Earth. All I really know is that Earth was Debased through pollution and wars, but there is no specific history. Plus, Earth doesn't seem particularly uninhabitable. Unpleasant, yes--unlivable, not that I could tell.

As a reader, I also wanted to know some of the reasons that some of the characters had for their motivations. Usually, we only know that the character decided to do X. Even if it was a difficult decision, we don't get into the character's heads much. I actually enjoy reading about how a character angsts over a decision.

I also am curious about why Terry was chosen. My suspicion--and I have no insider knowledge--is that he has some sort of mental ability that makes him a natural choice. The plot has hinted at some sort of higher ability throughout both books, so I'm interested to see how this pans out.

The novel kept my attention thoroughout, and I set aside several other novels because this novel did a better job holding my attention. McDonald excels at chapter breaks. Just when Terry is getting into some hairy situation, we switch over to Jodenny, but that turns out to be ok because Jodenny ran into her own set of adventures.

Don't go into this novel expecting gritty military science fiction. However, I hesitate to call it
soft, either. This is the second novel of a trilogy, and like most such novels, there's a lot of plot development with more questions than answers by the end, leaving you itching for the next volume.

This novel is available in hardcover.


Heather Massey said...

Can't wait to get my hands on Ms. McDonald's work--her books are on my summer reading list. Thanks for the post!

Tia Nevitt said...

I hope you enjoy it!