Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Review: THE OUTBACK STARS




THE OUTBACK STARS
By Sandra McDonald
Science Fiction Romance
TOR

Opening Notes From the Reviewer: I was intrigued about this one because Sandra McDonald is a former US Naval officer and I’d read praise about how well she incorporates her knowledge into THE OUTBACK STARS. I’ve worked for the military for over thirteen years and found the detail engrossing. I don’t know how much imagination she used in projecting her experiences into the future, but for me, the organization, protocol and environment of the Aral Sea was completely effective and believable.

COVER ART: I offer commentary on the cover because readers do judge books by them. Unfortunately. This has no bearing on my overall enjoyment of, or comments about the story. It’s important to remember that cover art is a choice in which the author normally has little say. THE OUTBACK STARS cover has swirling cool blues and hot yellows of space behind the female MC that are attractive and have an almost dreamy quality, which may be intentional. I found her gear a bit fanciful for a military sci-fi, and have no idea what the scrolling black objects are meant to represent in the foreground, but overall it does what a cover is supposed to do and that’s catch the eye.

INITIAL IMPRESSION: The story starts with a prologue, which some readers immediately skip. I don’t. This one has a specific purpose for existing. It offers a suspenseful hook into the crux of a disaster, and it gives insights into the female MCs experiences that has a tremendous bearing on her thoughts and actions later in the story. It was gut-wrenching, to say the least. It was also very short. It did everything a good prologue should, and it did its job extremely well.

MAIN CHARACTERS: I felt an immediate connection with the MCs angst, and an immediate sympathy toward the male MC as he debated reporting for duty or going AWOL to lose himself in the mountains. I also got a sense of their attraction in their first encounter, even though they both shuffle it off as unthinkable. Lieutenant JoDenny Scott is an officer. Sergeant Teran “Terry” Myell a NCO. Fraternization in this future is still a taboo. Both are tortured souls for things—terrible, unfair things—that happened in their past, and both bring a fair share of career baggage aboard their ship, the Aral Sea.

SUPPORTING CHARACTERS: There is a large cast, and if the reader isn’t accustomed to military organizations, they may want to consider taking notes about who is who, their rank, position and what they do on the ship. The author seamlessly works in some explanations of rank and structure via JoDenny’s education of a civilian worker who doesn’t understand how things work. Some of the characters have a few surprises in store. The author’s knowledge of military organization, especially that on a large vessel, is superb. It can be a learning experience as well as a great read. I found some of the bots (robots) very entertaining, especially a security bot that confronts JoDenny at one point in the story.

VILLAIN: The villains become obvious through their interactions with the characters, but there’s much more going on than meets the eye. The offstage villains, for the most part, is a terrorist organization called the Colonial Freedom Project.

WORLD BUILDING: Well done, believable, realistic. The various worlds of the Seven Sisters are distinct and have their own personalities. The ships and connected tower environments are a fascinating concept. The futuristic elements are not too far-fetched. The blending of military structure, mythic past, and modern space travel work well.

CONFLICT: As the story progresses, it becomes obvious something is amiss, and the Aral Sea is a very troubled ship. But not all the mystery is inside the ship. Some dirty dealings become evident, but not everything and not every threat is as straightforward. There are some surprises, some shocks, and some wondrous discoveries along the way. The tension is well done, though it occurs on many levels—professionally, sexually and outright life-threatening.

ROMANCE: There were times during the story I wanted to cuff each of the MCs for their stubbornness and for being in denial about their feelings and hurting the other because of it, but at the same time I understood their reservations and their reasons for wanting to hide from what they felt. I found Terry Myell the most honest of the two about his feelings, and his tenderness toward his niece and nephew and even a pet gecko, heartwarming. Terry is a put-up and shut-up sort, who is often closed-mouthed when he shouldn’t be, but there’s nothing dodgy or weak-willed about him. He’s an understated alpha male who finds himself in situations where he must control his temper and his tongue. I admired Lieutenant JoDenny Scott for her take-charge attitude, and her dealings with problem subordinates, sometimes by very clever methods. The relationship between JoDenny and Terry built slowly and encountered many obstacles, and the reader was ‘shown’ in subtle ways that—damn regulations!—these two belong together. They are often thrown into the mix because of surprising twists and turns. I would have liked to be privy to more of the emotions going on inside their heads before they finally blurted out the depths of their feelings—but the relationship worked for me and I rooted for them each step of the way. When they make an agreement not to see each other until Terry’s contract is up, JoDenny returns to being a confused officer and I found her way of dealing with things to be cold and aloof. For me, one of the most satisfying elements of the story was when Terry finally met her evasiveness head on in this excerpt:

Someone knocked. “Sergeant Gordon,” a voice said, and JoDenny snapped her head up to see Myell standing in the hatchway. Myell continued, “Can you excuse us for a moment. The lieutenant and I need to talk.”

Gordon blinked. “Sure thing.”

When she was gone, Myell deliberately closed the hatch, leaving just the two of them alone.

“Are you crazy?” JoDenny asked.

Myell gazed at her steadily. “Nowhere in ship’s regulations does it say that a lieutenant and a sergeant can’t have a private conversation behind closed doors.”

She rose. “You don’t think people are watching us?”

He advanced on her, his eyes dark and mouth grim. “We said we would keep this professional for three months. That doesn’t mean ignoring me in public. That doesn’t mean not even saying ‘Good morning, Sergeant’ or ‘How are you, Sergeant?’ in a lift.”

Jo Denny flushed. “Ensign Hultz told you.”

Myell took her arms and the nearness of him almost made her dizzy. “Ensign Hultz isn’t the woman I love.”

[I’ll let you read the rest for yourself.]

READABILITY: I found the story fascinating; though the pace wasn’t lightning quick there was enough mystery, emotion, and danger to keep me reading along and wanting more. I was disappointed when the story ended, and had to go on a recon mission to read a few excerpts from the sequel THE STARS DOWN UNDER. TSDU is definitely going into my Leaning Tower of TBR, somewhere very near the top.

EVIL AUTHORS GUILD STAMP OF APPROVAL: The Evil Authors Guild exists to encourage writers to inflict appropriate amounts of terror, angst and torture into their characters’ lives, and to leave them twisting in the wind at every opportunity. As you have probably guessed, this one earns an enthusiastic endorsement.

COOL STUFF:
In this future, Australia took the lead in space travel, so many of the place-names where taken from Australia or Australian Aboriginal mythology.

The ships are all named after environmental disasters on Earth, such as the Chernobyl, Okeechobee, Alaska, and Yangtze. One of the characters was bemused about this being someone’s brilliant idea. So was I.

DNGOs – (dingos) The ship’s worker robots that come in various classes and differing levels of erratic behavior.

Alcheringa – The alien transportation system that connects the Seven Sisters—habitable planets that have been colonized. The space warp was discovered near Mars, but not the aliens that built it.

Gib – an electronic device that has an “agent” the owner configures according to their tastes (female, male, sense of humor, etc.). The agent is like an electronic secretary who talks to the owner about their schedule, talks to other agents, makes appointments and provides information. They have names like Katherine and Holland, and yeah, I can easily see these as the iPhones of the future.

SECOND READ: Even after I finished, it was like this book was glued to my fingertips. I picked it up again and again to read a section or a chapter. After a few days, I had to go back to the beginning and start reading it all over again while I wait for the sequel to arrive. I missed a lot of subtle foreshadowing and detail the first time through. I don’t think I’m going to find a cure for this obsession until the sequel arrives.

OVERALL RATING: I don’t rate novels on a number scale. Each novel is unique and, just like sightseeing in a strange city, you learn about the literary ‘points of interest’ as you get to know the territory. Ok, this one is too easy. What city could this one be but Sydney? The Australian flavor is stamped on every page, and this story is just as much an enjoyable destination as the iconic Down Under harbor town, a place where the mythic past meets the present, and the future. A place you just have to go see for yourself. You just gotta.

3 comments:

  1. Very good review, Laurie. A gotta read, clearly. I must admit I don't like the cover. Maybe it looks better in real life but its too garish for me. I'm also not keen on having a full on face on the front - doesn't leave enough to the imagination. But your reveiw was very thorough and enticing!

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  2. Barbara, I hope you get a chance to read this one soon. Be sure to let me know what you think. I can't wait to read the sequel. Like P2PC, the MCs are married in the next book. Oops. That wasn't too much of a spoiler was it? Probably not, since the HEA or at least the HUTS (Happy until the sequel) is a given. Hey, I just coined a new acronym. Work would be proud. LOL

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  3. Now I've read it. Phew. I should have remembered you explained what a gib was, because I'd forgotten!!it puzzled me all the way through - I mean I knew vaguely what it was, but I would have liked a physical description. Maybe I missed it. Easy to miss stuff because this was a very detailed book. Overall I enjoyed it. It kept me up reading so that's a plus. I think your review was very fair. I'd add my issue with the names and number of characters. Maybe a list at the front of the book would have helped though I'd have just prefered less of them. It doesn't help either when the names aren't easy to remember but that might have just been me.

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