Australians ... in ... space!

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'The Outback Stars' by Sandra McDonald Strangely, I first met Lt. Jodenny Scott and Sgt. Terry Myell in Sandra McDonald's second novel, which I read in part last year at Blue Heaven. I say "strangely" because the first novel, The Outback Stars, was only published a couple of weeks ago. But I loved the characters enough from the partial second manuscript that I couldn't wait to go back and find out what happened to them earlier.

I got my chance a couple of months ago with an advance reader's copy of The Outback Stars, and I was not disappointed. Lt. Scott and Sgt. Myell serve in Team Space, a future starfaring naval corps whose ships are more than just military vessels. The ships ferry huge container modules—some bearing cargo, others luxury passenger accomodations, others prison populations—up and down the Alcharinga, a sort of spacetime manifold that permits hyperspatial travel. The Alcharinga was built by a vanished race and offers access to seven planets that seem to have been set up expressly for human habitation, but no one knows why. Team Space doesn't seem to want to look this gift horse too hard in the mouth.

Jodenny Scott is a heroic but haunted young lieutenant, one of the few to survive the destruction of the vessel Yangtze as it entered the Alcharinga. Her new assignment aboard the Aral Sea is to take its troubled and inefficient Underway Stores division and turn it around, but she is barely recovered herself from months of intensive therapy. One of her sergeants, Terry Myell, is just as unhappy, having muddled through a false rape allegation but emerged with at best few friends amongst his crewmates and at worst some deadly enemies. And just when Jodenny and Terry start suspecting that some ominous conspiracy is afoot in Underway Stores, they unexpectedly get caught up in the mystery of the builders of the Alcharinga....

A novel that puts the minutiae of naval procedure front and center may not sound like a gripping read, but dammit it is. Sandra McDonald (blogging nearby as [info]sandramcdonald) is a former naval officer herself, and obviously knows this world inside and out. We get to know our two protagonists by observing the way they conduct their inhumanly busy careers and navigate obstacles that range from trivial to lethal, and startlingly come to care about them very deeply in the process. These two broken but good and competent people play their cards very close to their vests, and it doesn't take long for us to start rooting for them to give in to their obvious mutual attraction. But at the same time we're terrified that when they do they will run spectacularly and destructively afoul of Team Space's fraternization regs.

All this business is layered through with at least two distinct and interesting mysteries, both of which come to a head together, one coming to a neat resolution, the other opening up into a wider SFnal mystery that will be explored in the next book. Which I've already read part of. Which won't be out until next year. Dammit!

Bottom line: The Outback Stars is an exciting, involving novel thoroughly grounded in the kind of mundane military reality that doesn't appear very often in science fiction, and with the two most likeably damaged characters I've seen in some time. Oh, and the dominant culture is Australian! I can't forget to mention that.

I've never been much a fan of military SF, but I loved The Outback Stars. Now go forth and purchase.

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William Shunn

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 2, 2007 9:32 AM.

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