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The Outback Stars (review)
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On Thursday afternoon, the last time I wrote a journal entry, I was just fifty pages into Sandra McDonald's The Outback Stars. I was finished by bedtime that night, having gotten totally sucked in and needing to find out what happened, ASAP! And after a day of thinking about it afterwards, I'm ready to do my promised review.

I didn't read The Outback Stars when it first came out, because I'd seen it marketed as military science fiction, a genre that's never particularly appealed to me. As it turns out, it certainly is military SF; all the characters are in the military, which rules their lives and expectations and outlook on the world; and yet I really, really enjoyed it. It's not gun-blasting SF glorifying war or battle; in fact, there aren't any battles, and even though the heroine, Jodenny, is an enthusiastic, career-minded officer on a military ship, the situations she's in highlight all the issues that can go wrong with traditional military structures.

...None of which might have interested me all that much, normally. But The Outback Stars turned out to be a blend of a lot of things I do really enjoy in novels. There's a really interesting romance that's every bit as important as the SF plot (in fact, this book could really easily be cross-marketed to romance readers); and I was alternately reminded, in the best possible ways, of two of my favorite writers, Patrick O'Brian and Lois McMaster Bujold. This turned out to be the kind of space opera I really like, written in a character-based style that reminded me nicely of Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, and the shipboard dramas and issues were wonderfully reminiscent of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, set in the 18th-century British navy. (This grabbed me right from the beginning, when just like O'Brian's Captain Aubrey in Master and Commander, Jodenny is desperately searching for a ship to serve on, any ship at all...) The plot, which circles around missing equipment, possible smuggling, and mysterious alien technology, is fast-paced and lots of fun, and I liked the writing style a lot.

But the best part, for me, was the romance between Jodenny, a lieutenant, and Myell, a sergeant serving under her. There are plenty of romance plots, in multiple genres, where the alpha hero is Of A Higher Station In Life, whether he's a 19th-century nobleman falling in love with his ward's governess, or a CEO marrying his secretary, and lots of plots about lower-class women getting swept away by their upper-class lovers. This is one of the few romances I've read, though, where the woman is of a higher station than the man in an intensely hierarchical society - where she is literally more powerful than the hero, to the point that he is actually obligated to follow all of her commands.

Not only that, but Myell is being bullied in an intensely horrible and physical way by other men onboard ship in a way that makes him feel utterly helpless - a situation Jodenny is determined to help him with. It's not the typical alpha-male romance plot - and McDonald does a brilliant job with it. Myell is in a position of weakness in every respect, which affects their relationship dynamic in all sorts of ways, but he's also a really strong character, certainly her emotional and intellectual equal, and it's totally believable when Jodenny falls in love with him...which only makes the chemistry between them more awkward, as their romance is, due to their jobs, entirely off-limits.

I had a couple of quibbles throughout the book - the section in the middle where Jodenny ends up accidentally thrown into contact with Myell in a non-work situation felt a little awkward in its choreography to me, and I was confused by a couple of minor points at the very end, especially wondering exactly how one particular burning issue had been resolved (it clearly had been resolved off-screen; I just didn't quite understand it)...but those were very minor quibbles. All in all, this was a really fun read, and even though it's not in the SF subgenre I usually read, I'll definitely be buying the second book in the series.

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