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Second Star by Dana Stabenow (Amazon commission earned)2 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from Powells“My full name is Esther Natasha Svensdotter but if you want to live you’ll call me Star.” Ah, here we go again. A first-time writer who sets up a Strong Female Character™ by replacing anything resembling a personality with attitude, and then invites us to bask in the irresistible glow of how cool and badass she is. Is Star a real human being? Are we given any real reason to like or care about her? Not particularly. But she’s our narrator for this bumpy ride, so hang on.

As the story opens, Star has for just over a decade been in charge of the world’s first full-fledged orbital colony, Ellfive. With two weeks to go until Ellfive is open to colonists (there’s a long waiting list, we learn, as apparently things aren’t going too well on Earth), Star constantly finds herself dealing with one crisis after another. Why, in the space of just a couple of hours one day, she throws a terrorist bomber out an airlock sans spacesuit, then breaks up a gang-rape by a group of thuggish soldiers from the moon. Go girl!

I wish I could provide a nice, cohesive synopsis of this novel’s plot for you, but in fact it simply doesn’t have one. It has about five or six. Lots of things are going on in Star’s life, but for more than half of the novel Stabenow employs a wildly scattershot, “just throw everything I have against the wall and see what sticks” approach to narrative structure, giving the reader little stake in any of it. Among the things Star must deal with is a possible takeover by militaristic scum from the lunar colonies; a mining mission out to the asteroids; solar flares; and a new security chief with whom she gets intimate. But their sexual tension is never tense for the same reason nothing else is tense. Star, and all of the rest of Stabenow’s characters, are caricatures, not believable people. Stabenow gives Star that glibness, that jaded world-weariness that feels so perfunctory, and that so many newbie SF writers think makes their heroes sound too cool for school. Every word out of Star’s mouth is withering snark, a knowing wisecrack, a sarcastic quip. Nobody has a real conversation in this book; they banter.

And Star just isn’t convincing as the sort of character who would be running an enormous orbital colony. In the early ’90s, it may still have seemed a bit revolutionary to write a space opera with a female character in a position of such responsibility. But Star handles her job by adopting an air of permanent, powered-up bitchiness, which I suppose once upon a time passed for feminism. As for the other characters, well, there are too many of them, for one thing, and they’re all too similar. Much of the first half of the novel is given over to Star taking her new security man — a black South African named, oddly, Caleb O’Hara — on a tour of Ellfive, where we are quickly introduced to about a zillion characters whom we are expected to keep track of. Ellfive itself has been well thought out, so I’ll give Stabenow kudos there.

But the majority of this little (202 pages) tale is dullsville, with virtually all the narrative given over to talk, talk, talk, and more talk, and practically no real action until near the very end. Exciting events start to unfold in the final third (Stabenow even manages to squeeze in a first-contact before all is said and done), but it’s taken so long to get there you can be excused for not being too interested.

Since this book’s release, Stabenow has moved on to the mystery genre, where her Kate Shugak series has met with much success. I haven’t read any of those novels, but would like to think they are a vast improvement upon this maiden SF effort, which barely earns its second star.

Followed by A Handful of Stars.