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Red Planet Run by Dana Stabenow3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsBy the time she released Red Planet Run, Dana Stabenow was well underway with her popular Kate Shugak mystery novels. They’d even won her an Edgar. So this book was her swan song to SF. Fans of Stabenow’s mysteries who are at all curious about reading any of the Star Svensdotter novels would do well to ignore the first two and stick with this one, which has probably the best story and fewest irritating elements of the three. True, Stabenow’s characters don’t crack wise any less frequently than, say, Steven Brust’s in his Vlad Taltos novels. But Stabenow has at last developed the chops to know how to pace that sort of thing, making these characters real and likable and the humor less self-conscious.

Red Planet Run roots its story in the myth of the “face on Mars,” which was really making the rounds in the late ’90s, and speculates on a possible alien visitation to our solar system in the distant past. Star is now a resident of the asteroid belt whose world-building business — involving hollowing out asteroids and turning them into livable environments — has made her the target of fanatics who want the asteroids left alone because they might be the remnants of a long-destroyed planet, Prometheus, that could have held life. She is roped into undertaking a mission to Mars to aid the archaeological investigation of relics in Cydonia, the face’s neighborhood, that may well settle the question of Prometheus and ancient astronauts once and for all. Encountering inexplicable difficulties upon entering the Martian atmosphere (we are told very few craft have ever managed to land safely and no one knows why), Star and her twin son and daughter get a bit more adventure than they bargained for upon landing.

The plot often falls back on pure formula. Stabenow throws in the intermittent appearance by a mega-villian Star crossed way back in the forgotten Second Star simply so the book will have a mean antagonist. It’s not ineffective dramatically, but it does lead to a wholly predictable confrontation that is purely routine. And when you get right down to it, the book’s whole premise is exactly that of the dreadful 2000 Brian de Palma film Mission to Mars. Sure enough, I had the same problem with one of this book’s reveals that I had with that film, which I will disguise in all-white spoiler-text: Why would an ancient alien race leave us a message on a distant world and then protect it with a device that would most certainly kill us when we stumble upon it unawares?

But Red Planet Run has two things going for it that help it overcome implausibilities. Stabenow writes with a genuine sense of wonder about the universe we live in and humanity’s place in it. Her descriptive passages about the Martian surface, as Star and her kids drift above it, are those of an actual explorer looking upon an entirely new world with the purest awe. It really catches you up. And it gives the novel’s elegiac closing paragraphs gravitas.

Also, Stabenow’s characterization is much more accomplished here. It’s impressive how Star has gone from fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying to warm and likable in such a short span of books. I could wish Stabenow would do a fourth volume simply on this basis. Much of the novel’s midsection deals with Star’s developing a real relationship with her son and daughter for the very first time in her life. Her realization of her past shortcomings as a parent, and her genuine commitment to bringing her family together, are depicted with a honesty and a heart not often seen in space opera.

Though as SF it may leave a bit to be desired, I have to say after Red Planet Run I’ll kinda miss Star and company. But I understand if Stabenow felt it was time to move on. Thanks to her for leaving us with one last Run before she did.