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A Handful of Stars by Dana Stabenow3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAgainst — or perhaps in perfect accordance with — conventional wisdom, Dana Stabenow’s sequel to her grating debut Second Star is a much better book. Though its first half suffers from some of the same flaws that marred its predecessor, overall A Handful of Stars shows that Stabenow has learned a thing or two as a result of her success in the mystery genre. And best of all, you don’t have to have read Second Star to understand or enjoy it.

Star Svensdotter has survived the One-Day Revolution that saw the orbital colony of Ellfive, now renamed Terranova, become independent of Earth. Now she is leading a team of astronauts — who include most of her cronies from book one, though they weren’t terribly memorable to begin with — out to the asteroid belt in order to get into the mining business in a big way. Star is also nearly nine months pregnant with twins, and has these babies by the time we are fifty pages into the book. Also within the first fifty pages: the mining colony Star’s vessel has gone to visit is discovered to have been stricken with a virulent new form of AIDS; this is cured by Star’s sister Charlie, who soon after also has a baby (!); a group of Space Patrol goons turns up on Star’s ship, led by none other than the niece of the villain from the last book; and Star’s mother arrives towing a long-lost son of Star’s, the result of an egg donation years back she had forgotten about. Whew! As in the first novel, Stabenow starts off writing like a mad chef who’s decided to make a stew out of absolutely everything in the fridge.

It works a little better this time, if only for the fact that much of the really irksome stuff Stabenow pulled in Second Star has been smoothed over. Star is no longer so teeth-gnashingly annoying. Her smarmy wisecracks — as well as those of the rest of the cast — have been toned down, occasionally to the point where some dialogue exchanges could actually be considered realistic, though overall the dialogue and characterizations still have a bad case of the cutes. The mission to the asteroids makes for a much more interesting setting, compared to the drab tour of Ellfive that made up most of Second Star’s first half. Indeed, the most successful scenes involve the hard SF content, the details of the asteroid-capture and ore refining operations and how they’re set in motion by Star and her crew. Stabenow exhaustively details everyone’s duties and how the whole machinery works. Clearly she’s done her homework.

But in the first half, these fine scenes are unfortunately offset by some painfully forced bits of comic relief, some of which are downright egregious. Case in point: the most objectionable scene takes place shortly after Star and Co. first enter the ragtag mining colony on Ceres (after curing its plague), where she and her husband Caleb go into — you guessed it — a grungy bar. If the cliché weren’t groan-inducing enough, Stabenow then has someone — wait for it — shoot the piano player! Um...LOL? Setting aside the fact that it’s more than a little cringe for Stabenow to play a casual murder for laughs (I know she’s a mystery writer, but still), the fact is that a homicide has taken place, and from a plot standpoint the cavalier attitude towards the act displayed by Stabenow’s characters just isn’t believable. I suppose Stabenow is trying to draw an analogy to the Wild Wild West. (Or perhaps she’s paying homage to Mos Eisley.) Trouble is, despite romanticized space opera notions that the deep space frontier will be pure lawless anarchy full of dashing brigands from the Firefly stable, it will more realistically be the exact opposite, strongly regulated. In space, one little screwup means everybody dies! But the upshot of it all is this: Stabenow falls into the amateur writer’s trap of sacrificing her story’s credibility for the sake of a cheap laugh.

As the book moves into its second half, Stabenow pulls up out of her nosedive. Her story develops the qualities Second Star lacked: a focused plot and engaging characterizations, without so much of the self-conscious glibness evident before. Things really kick into gear when Star gets the bright idea of going into the world-building business, capturing asteroids and hollowing them out to create self-contained space habitats. At this point the novel moves into upper-drawer Analog territory. It’s further benefited by some compelling character moments, such as a tense scene involving a confrontation between Star and the leader of a colony performing some potentially unsavory genetic experiments. Also, Stabenow eventually addresses the law enforcement issue, perhaps realizing the absurdity of the earlier scene. To top it all off, the final forty pages offer up some nifty surprises and honest emotional power, making A Handful of Stars ultimately worth the effort. Stabenow only wrote one more Star Svensdotter novel after this one. If she'd kept the series up, think how good a new one might be today.

Followed by Red Planet Run.