I enjoyed Mars Evacuees (2015) very much, it was a Cybils finalist, and it made a great read for the 5th/6th grade book club at my son’s school. So I was excited to get the eARC for the sequel, Space Hostages (which was published in the UK in 2015), though it has taken me quite a while to get round to reading it.
The intrepid band of Plucky Kids of Mars, as Alice, Josephine, Carl, Noel, and Thsaaa are now known on Earth, are once again heading off into space, along with Goldfish, the “undaunted, floating, blue-eyed American robot fish, on a mission to educate youth.” This time it’s a pleasant vacation trip for a ceremony to inaugurate the Morrors’ new home planet. But on the way, their spaceship, Helen, is captured by the giant lobster-like Krakkiluks, who believe that the humans and Morrors have occupied a territory belonging to their Great Expanse.
Once again, the plot has a leisurely start, in which we find out, in a meta-twist, that the previous book was, in fact, Alice’s memoirs published in this fictional world. There is a slightly sagging middle when the Plucky Kids are separated. Alice, Josephine, Carl, and Goldfish end up on a different planet, and their exciting adventures here are rather slowed down by their, to me, tedious efforts to communicate with the indigenous Eemala (though fair play to Ms MacDougall for not having the aliens all speak English). Noel and Thsaaa have their own adventures back on the Krakkiluk ship, but both narratives felt longer than they needed to be.
I also found the characters from the previous books a bit less fresh and striking than before. Josephine is more withdrawn since Mars Evacuees was published and is duct tapeless. Carl is also rather gloomy, and Noel gets little airtime. However, Goldfish continues to entertain: “We’re going to need teamwork, and imagination, and heavy duty weaponry to handle this!”, and Helen, the wistful, sentient, poetry writing, AI spaceship in love with her captain, is an excellent addition.
Alice’s narration is as drily and self-deprecatingly witty as before – “First contact is incredibly socially awkward” – and this lightness, together with our knowledge that these are her memoirs, keep the novel from being too scary, even though some of the situations are very intense.
McDougall makes considerable effort to keep the alien species non-humanoid and diverse. Not only do they look different from us, but they have different values: the warrior Krakkiluks are obsessed with married love, but have no time at all for children. The Eemala are less original, as they feel a little like furry, flying, humans.
There is a theme of colonization, which is delicately woven in, much like the first book looked at the idea of reactions to the other. The most obvious proponents are the Krakkiluks, and McDougall spins in subtle ideas about the social and cultural implications for both oppressors and oppressed, as well as bringing it home by having Carl makes a tart comment on the colonized caring for the colonizers’ children. And the humans are not entirely innocent with their captain proclaiming “The stars belong to us.”
Space Hostages can stand alone as there is a quick catch up at the beginning, but readers would be missing out if they started here. Overall, this is a very entertaining, intelligent, and imaginative sequel but, though satisfying, is just not quite as good as Mars Evacuees.
Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.