Published by Tor
Debut novelist Sandra McDonald takes readers on a celestial trip in The Outback Stars. Part space opera, part romantic military fantasy, McDonald spins a tale of a troubled heroine leading a troubled crew. The book opens with a prologue that pulls the reader in through action, with our protagonist, Lieutenant Jodenny Scott fully expecting to die. In this, McDonald did well to grab the reader’s attention and plant a seed for a mystery that takes much of the novel to resolve.
After the harrowing prologue, Jodenny asks to be assigned to the Aral Sea, a freighter similar to the one from which she recently escaped death. The similar ship brings a sense of familiarity. However, Jodenny is assigned to Underway Stores, one of the lower divisions on the ship with a crew of less-than-desirables. Here, McDonald presents a relatively familiar scenario – the new person in charge tries to clean up the derelict crew.
Jodenny Scott is not the only protagonist, as McDonald also focuses much of the story on Terry Myell. Myell has an equally dark past, having been accused (however, he was not convicted) of rape and continually marginalized by his fellow crewmembers. Of course, these two characters become romantically linked, however slowly revealed by McDonald. The two characters at first try to ignore their feelings, but this can only last so long. At least until an all too coincidental meeting during a planet-side leave from the Aral Sea.
Through the early part of the novel, we learn humanity has been able to colonize a small handful of planets after the discovery of an alien transportation system, (Alcheringa) that provides for faster-than-light travel.
Terry and Jodenny’s relationship doesn’t really begin to pick up steam until about a third of the way into the novel. Terry visits family while Jodenny simply wants to get away from the ship. Unfortunately for Jodenny, secret agents from an unknown organization pursue her, until she stumbles into Terry’s family shortly before Terry arrives. The coincidence that Scott just “happens” to find her way to Terry’s family is an almost too convenient way for McDonald to get the two characters together. However, from that point, the novel moves at a much more brisk and readable pace.
On their return to the Aral Sea, Scott and Myell walk through Wondjina Spheres, artifacts left behind by (supposedly) the same ancient civilization responsible for the Alcheringa. When they walk through, Scott and Myell realize they have stumbled into an ancient teleportation system, one that could change the way humans navigate the space ways. This system would provide for instantaneous travel between planets. Of course the agents who were after Scott the day before might have some interest in these spheres. McDonald unraveled this mystery and connection in an effective manner, maintaining tension through to the end of the novel.
McDonald did a great job of placing the reader aboard the Aral Sea, as an invisible member of the crew. Even though these people are out in space, they are still grounded in the mundane of everyday life. This particular balance was held well throughout. The dialogue and interaction between the crew and their superiors felt genuine and natural. On the other hand, the pacing was a bit uneven – after the explosive prologue, the narrative pull was not able to reestablish such a strong pull until about after 1/3 of the novel was complete. The only other minor niggle is the relationship between Terry Myell and Jodenny Scott – it felt right most of the time, but the situations that got to that “right” feeling felt a bit contrived, such as the coincidental meeting alluded to earlier.
The novel ended on an explosive note that, while leaving the door open for the inevitable subsequent volumes, provided a small sense of closure. The addition of Australian myth was welcome and provided a nifty backdrop for the possible legends and myths that informed the characters and possibly, the ancient aliens. Sandra McDonald has seemingly set up The Outback Stars such that she could take future volumes set in this universe in a number of directions. The novel is both good on its own merits and has provided an ample sample of a writer who might have much more to offer to Science Fiction readers.
© 2007 Rob H. Bedford
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