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Stars Beyond
Stars Uncharted #2
by S. K. Dunstall
Ace, $16.00, 416pp
Published: January 2020

There are few books I adored on the level of last year's 'Stars Uncharted', a novel by S. K. Dunstall, the pseudonym of a couple of Aussie sisters with a clear fondness for 'Firefly' and its ilk. If they're not Browncoats, they should be.

'Stars Uncharted' was a joyous space romp full of action, adventure, piracy and the promise of treasure. There were lovable rogues aplenty, fascinating futuristic tech and a number of neat mythologies, some of them built around events and others around people. There wasn't a thing not to love about it.

I might suggest that there isn't a thing not to love about this sequel, but its surprising decision to wrap everything up in a nice neat ball means that its flaws come out to play in front of our eyes. The first is that it seems to have little interest in continuing as a series: all of the questions left unanswered at the end of the first book are answered here, I believe, or at least the big ones. Maybe there are a few little threads left hanging here and there, but the grand story arc set into motion last time out is done.

The second is that, while we could happily forgive the focus on cliffhangers over substance in a book two or a book six, that's a great deal harder to do in a book last. Once we know we're done, we can look back at this fictional universe and dive deeper, but we find here that there isn't a lot of depth. Now, there could have been because it was all set up so well in the opening book, but the authors seem to have lost interest in their own creations and just wrote themselves a race to the finish.

At least it's a fun race. Our core characters are still there, now on a new ship called Another Road, given that the Road to the Goberlings was blown up under them, and they're safe out there in the blackness of space. The catch, of course, is that they don't have everything they need to do what they want to do and that means potentially exposing themselves to the authorities when they dock for the supplies they need.

And, worse still, the supplies aren't just menial supplies. Nika Rik Terri, if she's ever going to get Hammond Roystan's memory back and thus open up a route to the fabled motherlode of transurides that only he knows about,  must have better equipment. She needs a Songyan, a modding machine with all the extra bells and whistles that will allow her to get the job done. And a Songyan to her specifications is a bright red flag to the authorities, who are naturally waiting for such an order to be made. So, however calm we are at the outset, we know there's a storm coming.

The best bit about this book for me was the introduction of a worthy foe in Alastair Laughton, former agent for the Justice Department. In this future, corporate oligarchy is the name of the game and corruption bleeds deep into law enforcement, but he's an honest man and a good one too, even if he takes the job of tracking down Nika as a swap of favours. What's most fun is that, as much effort as Nika and the rest of the crew put into avoiding him, there is zero doubt that they're going to end up working together at some point, a long way into the book, because there are others in need.

How this all ties in is a little too convenient for my tastes. Space is big, said Douglas Adams, but it's not very big here. Everything clusters together so that it can all be wrapped up neatly and that's not how it should be. The area of space at the heart of all this plot convenience is the Vortex, wild and wonderful and very dangerous astronomical phenomenon. Laughton has been busy there, not just working on leave from the Justice Department, but with the discovery of a new spacegoing species, the Ort, who have a special need indeed, one that requires the talents of the very lady Laughton is tasked to find when he goes back to the Department for help.

If the worst aspects of this are that it ends and that it does so with plot convenience aplenty, then the best parts are the characters and the action. The authors are very good with the former, really bringing the team together even when it includes people it never expected. They're frankly outstanding at the latter. I haven't read many books since the glory days of Haggard and Sabatini that nail action so well, with all the cliffhangers, sacrifices and trades that come with that territory. This book runs just over four hundred pages but I read it in a couple of sittings. I had to refill the bath a few times just to avoid freezing to death.

Perhaps it's fair to say that the authors care more about their heroes than their villains. Roystan, because of his condition, hands over the lead here to his crew, most obviously Nika Rik Terri, body modder supreme, but also a number of others, from her apprentice, Bertram Snowshoe, to ship's engineer Josune Arriola. I'd include Laughton in the heroes category here, even if he happens to be the one chasing them the hardest, because he's the hero in his own story and we just know they're all going to merge.

The villain, however, is really the system, even if it wears the face of the despicable Leonard Wickmore. He's less a person and more the personification of everything that's wrong with this corrupt oligarchy. If the series is to continue, as I hope it will, the authors really need to conjure up a strong and captivating villain and endow that character with as much depth as they do the heroes.

And I'll leave it there, because this really isn't the sort of book to tear apart and analyse. It's a Saturday morning serial, even if it's a fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable one. The conveniences and coincidences aren't going to stand up to much thought but the ride past them is a rollercoaster. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by S.K. Dunstall click here

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