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Stars Uncharted
by S. K. Dunstall
Ace, $16.00, 416pp
Published: August 2018

If I find another new science fiction novel over the next decade that more deserves to be a feature film in our cinematic universe with little imagination and far too many 'Star Wars' sequels, I'll dance a jig of surprise. I'm not holding my breath for a better example unless the pair of Australian sisters who combined their names into S. K. Dunstall (one is Sherylyn and the other Karen, hence the initials) write that one too.

While it's hardly the Great Australian Novel, 'Stars Uncharted' is nearly four hundred pages of space opera fun that's jam packed with all the component parts your heart could possibly desire. I read it in two days because I simply didn't want to put it down. If I didn't have a couple of shelves of other books by my bedside that I have to dive into next, I'd have closed 'Stars Uncharted', sighed in contentment and then promptly opened it back up again to read afresh.

We're in a dystopian future in which the galaxy is dominated by seventeen corporations which control everything with their private enforcement armies, but our heroes are libertarian free in the old tradition. Lead amongst them is Capt. Hammond Roystan, who runs cargo in his ship, The Road to the Goberlings. He's a little bit Captain Mal and a little bit Han Solo, as you might expect, but he has an air of mystery to him that gives him validity on his own merits.

His ship's name is important, by the way. Goberling was a legendary prospector a century and change earlier and he found a vast source of the novel's MacGuffin, elements called transurides that fuel modern technology. That motherlode is lost, of course, but a lot of people are still searching for it. Think the Lost Dutchman's Mine, if it had provided the materials to revolutionise mankind's future.

One ship in particular, the Hassim, has been searching for Goberling's discovery for decades and it's become a sort of legend itself. And, at the beginning of this novel, it shows up out of nowhere right next to Roystan's ship in dire straits. Its crew are dead, murdered by one company's militia, but its information is still intact and there's a strong indication that the intent of the captain was to get it into Roystan's hands for reasons unknown. We're let in on another secret quickly too, namely that Josune Arriola, the Road's new junior engineer, is on board under false pretenses, given that she's really a crew member of the Hassim working undercover for reasons unknown. There are lots of reasons unknown here, which actually works really well for the most part.

There's another important character to mention too and that's Nika Rik Terri, a body modification artist of some renown, who finds herself on the run and in need of a spaceship going anywhere but here. While Roystan is the technical lead and he's a worthwhile character, I found myself much more interested in Josune and especially in Nika, who's incredibly knowledgeable (as well as impressively innovative) in her field but completely clueless when it comes to a number of other things that need to be done. She is willing to learn though and she's a quick study but that curse of speciality really deepens her character. The fact that she brings another character in tow who idolises the real her but doesn't realise who the person he's with really is adds another fun dimension.

And so the race is on. The authors understand what makes space opera work and they revel in it here. They set up an enticing big picture, with civilisation sprawling across farflung planets, space stations and the vast spaces in between, but they don't neglect the little pictures, the stories that sit behind each of the main characters, not only their immediate goals but their backgrounds too. I was fascinated by Nika's job, which is a cross between plastic surgeon, gene therapist and cosmetologist, but in a form that manifests as more artist than doctor. We're thrown deeply into her profession without it bogging down any of the story at all and I adored that.

The authors refuse to keep their creations in one place for long too, setting up interesting cliffhangers to prompt their inevitable moving on to new locations. Unlike many authors who focus too strongly on the mechanisms of cliffhangers, the Dunstalls, without neglecting that aspect, are able to add a great deal of palpable tension in the process. Part of this is that every major character, as important as they clearly are, feels like they could be killed off at any moment and that's a neat trick to pull. And I say that even though I saw through the main twist almost immediately (though not a further twist on that twist). That's the biggest flaw of the book and, frankly, it doesn't matter. I thought it would while I was reading it, but it doesn't.

Another aspect I really liked here was that it wasn't just the people who were potentially disposable. This is far from the shiny, pristine future that we see so often in space opera, whether in literature or film. Things get dirty a lot here. They get damaged and they break down. There are design flaws, not just conveniently disclosed ones but known ones that nobody's got round to redesigning around yet because who's got the time and the money at once? And knowing how to deal with the limitations of devices can be helpful in other situations. Things don't exist in isolation here; they can affect other things in highly believable ways.

'Stars Uncharted' appears to be a standalone novel but there's plenty of opportunity for the Dunstalls to continue on within the universe it introduces. The discoveries at the finale ably set up a second volume if they want to go there. Even if they don't, it wouldn't be difficult to set other stories in this same universe, whether they feature a character or characters from this book or not. And I'd be first in line for more.

This is their fourth book together, following the Linesman trilogy that I believe is unrelated to this novel. I have to say that I'm drawn more to this universe than that one, based on synopses and interviews and what I've read, but I can't not follow up with those. At the end of the day, science fiction thrives on ideas, characters and good writing and, on the basis of this book alone, I trust in the Dunstalls to deliver all three of those in whatever they choose to write. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by S.K. Dunstall click here

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