Review: The Outback Stars by Sarah McDonald

The Outback Stars by Sarah McDonald (Tor, 2007) is the author’s debut novel.  McDonald, a formal naval officer, tells the tale of Jodenny Scott who, having survived the destruction of her former ship, joins the crew of the Aral Sea to escape what she feels are the sins of her past.  On the Aral Sea Scott finds an environment far different from her previous berthing and sets out trying to set her department aright discovering mischevious plots, ancient mysteries, and romance along the way.

McDonald, thanks to her naval background, is able to color Jodenny’s experience with extraordinarily vivid detail.  Where many military sci-fi books focus on the captain of a ship McDonald’s attention on a supply office trying to straighten out a departmental mess makes for surprisingly compelling reading.  Her focus on action and detail when it comes to lives of the Aral Sea’s crew pushes the ship itself into the background.  There is almost no discussion of how the ship itself looks, is structurally organized, or how it works.  Through the actions and stories of the crew you can garner somewhat of an impression but about the only things you know for certain is that the Aral Sea is big.

Similar to Tobias Buckell’s use of the Carribean culture to infuse his novel with unique flavor, McDonald bases her culture off that of Australia.  Amidst a setting full of the remnents of an ancient alien race she interweaves aboriginal Australian myth.  The narrative is split between the corruption of Jodenny’s department, the mystery of the aforementiond ancient alien race, and Jodenny’s attraction to her subordinate Sargeant Myell.  While all of these plots are easy enough to follow McDonald drops too many tantalizing clues about her setting that end up getting lost in the shuffle.  Brief mentions of Maori discrimination, an infodump about the rich hegemony forcing aboriginals to stay on a ruined earth, and hints on the relationship between the ancient alien race and the aboriginal belief system to name a few.  The last is the real sticker in my opinion.  Throughout the book Sergeant Myell has dreams in which a native shaman appears, he is frequented by a gecko and keeps finding links that tie him back to something larger himself.  All of this ends up going nowhere (we’re talking chapters of development) further than servings as useful deus ex machina towards the end of the novel.  Last but not least McDonald continuously uses in paragraph temporal shifts that often forced me reread certain passages over again, a minor nettle but confusing none the less.

All complaints asside I found The Outback Stars a compelling if flawed debut.  McDonald draws you in with her intensly detailed and interesting descriptions of naval life and tanalizes you onward with the deeper cultural context of her setting.  It is unfortunate that the latter serves as only a minor blip in the novel’s concluding chapters.  A definate C title that is only held back by a few minor details that a few more novels should see rectified.  The sequel, The Stars Down Under, is out in hardcover now and I will definatley check it out sometime in the future.