The Outback Stars
Sandra McDonald

Morality: C+
Writing: B-

Lieutenant Jodenny Scott’s last space voyage ended in disaster, when her ship was destroyed by a terrorist bombing. After an interminable recovery on the planet Kookabura, she finally manages to get a place on a new ship, the Aral Sea. Jodenny soon finds herself with more than she can handle: not only is she running the Underway Stores division, whose crew is dubious at best, but she begins to find clues that there is something sinister going on aboard the Aral Sea–and she’s developing an unsettling attachment to a troubled young sergeant named Terry Myell.

On the whole, this was an enjoyable book. The best part is the depiction of the day-to-day runnings of the ship, the little details of discipline and routine: I was most involved with Jodenny’s character when she was trying to get her division to run more efficiently. Jodenny is also one of the more believably traumatized characters that I have read recently, haunted but not melodramatic.

The world of the book is lively and interesting: there’s an Australian tinge to the interstellar culture, presumably because it was an Australian team that first discovered the Alcheringa, a hyperspace channel that links the inhabited world (itself quite a cool concept). There are political tensions, there are curious alien artifacts, and there are a few intriguing hints about the disasters that have befallen Earth since humanity took to the stars.

The main weak point of The Outback Stars is, unfortunately, right at its heart: the romance between Jodenny and Myell. There are quite a number of other plot threads–alien mysteries, criminal conspiracies, Aboriginal mysticism, secret government operations and deep cover agents–but only the romance is resolved by the end of the book (the rest being left, presumably, for the sequels). This means that the romance has to carry the weight of the ending on its own, and it isn’t quite up to the task. I liked both Jodenny and Myell individually and sympathized with them quite a bit, but I never got a feel for what made them fall in love beyond their physical attraction to each other, or what they were going to spend their life together doing when they weren’t in bed.

Now, I think that stories can successfully use physical attraction as a code for a deeper connection. However, you can’t make that work in a novel where the heroine has hot, guilt-free sex with someone besides the hero, because then the reader is left to conclude that she only chooses the hero because sex with him is that much hotter. Jodenny and Myell were convincingly hot–and, to be fair, they were also convincingly good at cooperating in life-or-death situations–but I still wanted to see something more to their relationship.

On a moral level, the book obviously has problems because of the whole “premarital sex, yay!” issue, though to its credit it does come down in favor of eventual marriage. (I am looking forward to the sequels simply for the exotic thrill of reading about a happily married couple.) Also, there’s a subplot about Myell’s formerly abusive older brother who wants to make amends, and it’s handled with skill and sensitivity, valuing forgiveness without making it into something cheap and glossy.

Content-wise, there are some fairly strong sex scenes, as well as some bad language. It’s not for the young.

Posted by Rose | January 21, 2008

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