Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reading Notes: And All the Stars

I picked And All the Stars as my first title from the Aurealis Awards finalist list for two reasons - one, because it's self-published, and I like self-published titles; and two, because it is double-nominated in the YA novel category, and I have a lot of time for YA fantasy / sci fi if done well.

Having read it, I'm pleased to say the randomness of my selection process didn't let me down - this is a terrific book, a worthy prize nominee and a serious contender to take it in both categories.

The book is very reminiscent, to me, of the Australian YA classic series, John Marsden's Tomorrow books. Although And All the Stars features an element of classic sci fi soup that's absent from Tomorrow - bad, bad aliens, who do bad, bad things to human bodies - the central construct is remarkably similar, featuring a group of teenagers forced together by necessity to try to confound an imminent threat to their lives and their whole society.

Like Marsden, Host has the knack of drawing teen characters that are not only believably their age, but also strong, resourceful, purposive and well rounded. Madeleine Cost, the central protagonist, is a likeable and relatable character, and the supporting cast are vividly realised and differentiated. Part of the success of Host's ensemble is in her natural, unforced and effective evocation of multicultural Australia - the teenagers are obviously, but not ponderously or awkwardly, from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but are all united in their grief, anger and determination to fight back against the aliens who have invaded their world and their bodies.

I interviewed Penni Russon, another Australian YA fantasy author, recently in my other life as the literary correspondent at The Shake. One of the things that she said that struck a chord with me, and is very true of And All the Stars, is that one element true YA must have is hope. No matter how dire the situation or how thin the thread, there needs to be some sense that there is, or will be, light. That is, of course, why many - most? - YA books end with reasonable resolutions for at least the central protagonists, although YA authors are not shy about killing off beloved supporting characters (think Finnick and Prim in The Hunger Games books, two of the best-loved sacrificial lambs of all time).

This is where And All The Stars really comes into its own as a YA title - it is, despite having moments of great tension, ultimately a very hopeful book, and I was never in any doubt that things were going to end well for Madeleine, Fisher and their cohort. The storyline is pretty linear and straightforward, but Host's grasp of pace and plotting makes this an asset rather than a letdown - there is nothing not to like about a ripping good story told well from end to end without fancy tricks. And, to be honest, after getting through the awesome but fairly highbrow Stella Prize shortlist, reading a story that's focused on the story and not the symbolic weight of every frown and nose-pick was really enjoyable. Which is not to say there are no big ideas in this book - there are plenty, and Host handles them really well. It's just that this is a book that doesn't spend a lot of time contemplating its own navel, but rather keeps moving briskly along; and more power to it for that, I say.

I found the ending quite satisfying, although perhaps a tad too neat and rushed for my taste - there is an awful lot of Big Plot Exposition in the last three chapters! - and I will happily recommend this book to teen friends and adult sci fi fans alike.

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