Sandra McDonald's debut novel The Outback Stars should reach a broad swathe of readers from hard science fiction fans to romance readers and manage to please them all.

Lt. Jodenny Scott is a survivor of a spaceship disaster that killed almost 800 people. She doesn't feel like a hero because she doesn't remember saving people despite being injured in what was said to be a terrorist attack. Bored by a convalescent desk job, she pulls strings to get a position on another ship. As she soon discovers, her new ship, the Aral Sea, is not in great shape either.

Scott is put in charge of the Underway Stores department and quickly runs up against small-time gangs who run the other parts of the ship. She tries to make her department shipshape they have fallen behind in everything, even delivering new uniforms to sailors and finds that her best worker is Terry Myell, a semi-disgraced sailor who is trying to keep his head down until he can finish his deployment and leave the ship. Work rules mean she and Myell must ignore the spark between them, which is easy to do when they're confined to the ship. When they meet offship, however, it's a different story.

The Outback Stars sets sail rather slowly, as McDonald sorts out who is who and what job responsibilities each person holds. Once the characters are established, however, the various plots kick in and the reader is drawn along at full speed. McDonald's universe is fresh and intriguing: Humanity has tripped over a chain of interstellar shortcuts that run in a circuit to a series of habitable planets. The planets have been settled by different groups from a worn-out Earth who can only communicate through the ships sailing around the circuit.

A former U.S. Navy officer, McDonald combines her knowledge of naval operations with current fears of terrorism to craft a lively space tale filled with everything from Australian folklore to long-vanished aliens. She supplies enough answers to satisfy readers and enough questions to leave room for more stories in the future.

Gavin J. Grant runs Small Beer Press in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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