You can’t cry in space, but I was giving it a good go.
After all, I’d just been THROWN OUT OF AN AIRLOCK by a horde of ALIENS and had about three minutes left to live.
So you can’t blame me for trying.
But as it turned out, that was just the start of my adventures.
Because very soon it became clear that if I was ever going to get back home, not only would I have to NOT DIE, but me, my friends and our floating robot goldfish would have to SAVE THE WORLD. No, scrap that. THREE WORLDS. All at the same time.
Reviewing it eighteen-odd months ago, I had some serious issues with Mars Evacuees; but because Sophia McDougall is a lovely person, I decided to give Space Hostages, the sequel, a try regardless… and I’m glad I did!
Space Hostages picks up a little time after Mars Evacuees left off, including enough time having passed for Alice Dare to have published her memoirs of what happened to her last time out – titled, of course, Mars Evacuees; the conceit of both novels being that they have been written by Alice Dare as accurate records of what happened to her and her friends. Part of what that has led to is a development of Alice’s voice, alongside the rest of the cast; it’s a definite improvement from the first book, as McDougall appears to have gotten a better grasp on that voice, and on the characters she’s working with. Part of that, of course, is that they’re all tempered by their experiences; part of it is also that we have the full addition of Thsaaa to the cast, a Morror who we now know, rather than having to find out about, and who creates a different dynamic in the group.
There’s also a better grasp of the interpersonal dynamics of the core cast, in part because McDougall isn’t developing them from scratch, and in part because Space Hostages has some areas of interpersonal conflict that Mars Evacuees didn’t; it gets to examine longer-running tensions, such as between Josephine and Alice, and how those might be handled (McDougall doesn’t tie the tensions that she makes clear are there early, instead allowing them to slowly be healed and revealed across the course of the whole nove), as well as breaking the team apart into different configurations that allow for different pressures – such as splitting up Noel and Carl, which allows Noel to come into his own as an independent character rather than in the shadow of his brother. Unfortunately, the chapters from Noel’s (and Thsaaa’s) point of view are the weakest chapters of Space Hostages; Noel’s voice is weaker than Alice’s, and having the chapters being dialogues between Thsaaa and Noel is something of a problem because they don’t quite flow, especially the first one; there’s something slightly odd about having passages which are apparently recorded in the midst of the events they portray interspersed with retrospective chapters, especially when the former feel retrospective.
Space Hostages is, in some ways, a much more grown up book, full of greys rather than black and whites, with discussion of colonialism (outright statements of its place in British history, in fact), medical ethics, and the complexity of people, among other things; there’s mention, which one assumes children won’t catch (for that matter, how many adults have read Simone de Beauvoir?), of feminist theory. It’s a wonderfully complex novel that McDougall uses to ask all kinds of questions and raise all kinds of issues around real-world situations, without of course giving answers to those questions; the plot revolves around an alien empire that is emphatically evil, but doesn’t place humanity in the role of unmitigated good – and the aliens aren’t evil because alien, but because empire, which McDougall has (rightly) no interest in redeeming.
Many series become stronger as they go on; it’s clear McDougall’s Space Hostages falls into this category, although the ending implies there may not be another novel, and that would be a loss. Alice Dare has a fantastic voice, and one I’ll miss if this is the last time I’m too meet her.