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Adrift by Rob Boffard4 stars
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Adrift is a blockbuster movie on paper, which, I suppose, is the kind of description a reviewer could attach to a book they’re about to trash just as easily as one they liked. But in the case of Adrift, I can assure you all it’s worth turning up opening night. Rob Boffard’s SF thriller has a terrific high-concept hook: a group of tourists in deep space find themselves stranded on a shuttle with no possibility of rescue when the space station that serves as their home base is destroyed without warning by hostile parties unknown.

Hannah Elliott is a tour guide aboard Sigma Station, located near a deep space jump gate with a glorious view of the Horsehead Nebula. It’s her first day, and that alone is probably bad omen enough. We learn of a bitter and bloody war that raged between the Frontier Navy of Earth, and the Colony worlds established as a result of the Great Expansion. With a new treaty in place, presumably hostilities are over, and Boffard throws some satirical shade at the unseemly speed at which commercial interests have swept in to monetize former war zones as tourist destinations.

Hannah boards a tiny tourist shuttle called the Red Panda for her shift as guide. They’re not away from the station for more than a few minutes before a massive warship of some kind swoops in and blows the whole place to kingdom come with hundreds of AI controlled drone bombs. Luckily, the shuttle’s pilot is ex-military herself, and hides the tiny vessel amongst the wreckage until they’re sure the coast is clear. Once it is, they plan to make their way to the jump gate and high-tail it home. Is the gate is still operational? Guess for yourself.

So it is that we find Hannah, her pilot, and a small group of tourist passengers stranded, with no food except for a couple dozen bags of chips — sadly, the tour company didn’t even stock the bar — and no way home. Fairly soon, they will be joined by another passenger, though I’ll leave you to discover how that happens for yourself. We know how certain situations will play out, but we know in a way that actually enhances our anticipation. Any thriller fan will guess that some people on board the shuttle aren’t who they appear to be, some will have surprising skill sets while others will have none at all, and they’ll be the ones put on the spot in life-or-death moments. We know the story will lead us down a certain path to understanding, then drop a twist or two on us that shakes our expectations.

As for the characters, some of these folks will drive you crazy, because people often act stupidly under stress, but also because some of them are genuine assholes. There is one family, with a couple of kids, who blessedly are never annoying (the kids, I mean — the parents are goddamn idiots), even as the youngest boy, Corey, is predictably smarter and more level-headed than most of the adults and will pick up on things they all miss.

Boffard realizes that in order to pull a story like this off, he has to juggle a lot of pins. We need not too many characters, and they must all avoid stereotype and become three-dimensional without breaking up the narrative’s forward momentum with excess backstory. The plot can be a little far-fetched for the sake of thrills and suspense, but there have to be rules that the narrative follows unfailingly. We can’t have big stupid cheats because they’ll stand out twice as much as in any other book. Tension must be at a level that drives readers up the freaking wall, but dramatic beats have to be carefully timed, otherwise everyone will notice you’re just using action in lieu of an intelligent story, when the goal is to use it in the service of one.

Adrift nails it, more often than not. There are some moments, particularly in the more protracted second half, where we can see the hand of the author a little too obviously pushing the plot where he needs it to go. But for raw entertainment value? Achievement unlocked. If I were talking to someone today who had just told me they’d read The Martian and were all hyped for something just as exciting, I’d steer them well away from Artemis and towards Adrift with no hesitation. Some books become sleeper hits, while others get lost in the vast publishing void. Adrift deserves to be rescued.