After I had finished reading The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald, I was very intent on finding the next book in the series. Set in the far future, where it's the Australians who make the leap into leading the space race and colonization of the galaxy, the story was a hard space opera. It had two likeable main characters, a realistic feel to the story, and took some tried and true formulas from science fiction and freshened them up with some new twists. Now the sequel is out in mass market paperback, and I settled in one afternoon to take it in.
The Stars Down Under picks up the tale of Lieutenant Jodenny Scott and Chief Terry Myell have married and are trying to settle in on the planet Fortune. He's been assigned to a school for training members of Team Space, and she is a sort of troubleshooter for the fleet. But neither of them are fitting in well. They have a problem with their different rank -- in the future it seems, relationships between enlisted and officer ranks are frowned upon -- and Terry's co-workers resent him mightily, despite his recieving a medal for valour.
Most of all, it seems that their encounter with the mysterious Wondjina Spheres, differing sized domes that appear in clusters of three on nearly every planet, hasn't been forgotten by Team Space. And despite their reluctance to be involved, both Jodenny and Terry are none-too-gently coerced into assisting a scientific team into finding out what happened to another team that vanished. Indeed, it's Terry who can activate the spheres and the ability to travel instantiously through space, and possibly time, which makes him a very valuable commodity....
Here the series makes a hard shift from straight up science fiction to a sort of space fantasy that blends futuristic travel with Australian Aboriginal culture and mythos. All sorts of creatures appear, from crocodiles that appear in the sky, racing through houses and in cave paintings, to a tribe on one planet that insists that Terry is the manifestation of a thunder god. It's interesting stuff, but...
And that's a pretty serious but here. Despite the interesting plot, despite the mix of ancient legends and lore into hard science fiction, I had a hard time wading through this book. As the scenery kept changing, and as Jodenny is by turns frustrated at the lack of help in finding her husband and sent off back to Earth on a secret mission disguised as a civilian librarian, I started to care less and less.
The writing is good, the style interesting, but when I got about two-thirds of the way through the book, I started to get bored and finding other things to do besides read. For me, that's the kiss of death for a novel. Usually books start off slowly, easing the reader into the tale after the initial surprise, but here the narrative starts off with a bang, and then moves slower and slower, with secondary characters that are either cardboard and dull or maniacal and unlikeable and dull.
While I do suggest that you've had read the previous novel in this series before taking on The Stars Down Under, and there is a third novel out in hardbound, this isn't one that I would suggest that you hurry out to find. If there's nothing else to read, or you really need a science fiction fix, it might do. But the downside is that it's such an average read, I can't honestly recommend it. That's too bad, as the elements of the story, especially the use of Australian culture and speech really does make this different than the usual run of the mill yarn.
An excerpt from the third novel, The Stars Blue Yonder is tucked in at the back of the paperback.
Three stars overall, not really recommended.