We sit in silence while al-Rihla, the jewel of the colonies, gradually takes over more and more of the viewport. It looks exactly like it did on the pages of my textbooks, only so much more. I let my eyes linger for a moment, taking in green continents outlined in rich red sand and huge, intensely blue oceans that glitter below. I know we’re in a life-or-death situation, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the view. I can see why all the antiexploration crap went away once a few humans actually got out here. Who could look at all this and not want it? It’s bizarre--I’ve only seen Earth from space once, and I was busy trying not to die at the time. Now I’m looking down on a completely different planet, in person, in space, while flying a ship I stole.
I'm actually here. This is all I've ever wanted, though I didn't get it in the way I wanted.
And in a few painfully long minutes, I'll find out whether I get to live to see the other seven colony worlds one day, or if I get to die in a dramatic crash and kill all my new friends instead.
Nax Hall is a would-be pilot, would-be space colonizer, and would-be anything but a failure in the eyes of his family. Sadly, after a day at the Ellis Station Academy (the only way to achieve two of those goals, and his best shot at the third), he's been cut from the program. He's not the only one -- three others have been, too. As they wait for the shuttle to take them back to Earth, a terrorist group of some kind attacks the Academy. With a little luck, the expelled students escape in the shuttle that was destined to take them to Earth.
But they quickly realize that space fighters won't allow the ship to land on Earth where they can alert the authorities about what happened at the Academy -- so they have to hyperjump (or whatever it's called in this world -- I already took the book back to the library and can't check) to colonial space. They quickly learn that the terrorists have used their escape as a means to frame them for the atrocities committed at the Academy and they now are on the run from the same authorities they were hoping to help them.
Thankfully, between the four of them, they have an almost perfect crew -- a pilot, a diplomat, a medic and a technician/copilot. They soon find themselves aligned with a computer expert with ties to black-market entities that can help them spread the word about what happened at the Academy and what it might mean for the future of Earth's space colonies. These five plucky teens are all that stands between humanity and widespread destruction.
England has a gift for action scenes -- they were energetic, dynamic and enough to sink your teeth into. Nax's flying, in general or in combat, was the highlight of the book for me. I could've used a little more of it, even though that would have been gratuitous. I'm not above gratuity in the right place. There's a strong sense of fun in the narrative -- despite being up against impossible odds, these kids are living their dream (just not in the way they wanted, as Nax put it in the quotation above). There's a good deal of bonhomie between the makeshift crew, which builds gradually over the book to the point where they're a tight bunch of friends at the end. This sense of fun is grounded by the dangers they face and the costs they're paying, just enough to keep this from being a romp.
The characters aren't that complex, although England makes a couple of attempts at it. Their backstories are interesting, to the degree that she explores them (which isn't much). We get enough of Nax's crewmates' backstories to explain their presence on the ship, but not much more. We get plenty about Nax in bits and pieces -- which is good enough, he's the star of the show (and should be). The bad guys aren't much more than stock villains, mostly a faceless group or two conspiring to do evil things. That's fine with me, this isn't the kind of book that promises complex opponents with compelling reasons for their activities, mustache-twirlers with lots of henchmen are good enough.
Here's my major complaint with the book -- the politics. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that politics shouldn't enter into fiction. Particularly Science Fiction. I'd prefer to see more of it -- at least more diversity in political views, too much of the politics in SF is so culturally homogeneous one could easily believe no other opinions existed. But before I get gong on that line, let me get back to The Disasters. The politics and societal struggles of the late 22nd Century are apparently identical to those of 2018. Now, I'm not suggesting that Earth's culture should have worked everything out and the struggles of today will be a distant memory -- but they should've changed somewhat. The way these problems are seen, expressed and argued about should be different. England just comes across lazy in her approach to these ideas. It'd be like someone writing about Irish cops in 2019 Boston the same way people wrote about them in 1850.
Thankfully, while it flavors much of the book, the characters don't spend that much time actively discussing it, so it's easy to forget about. What you're left with is popcorn fun. A bunch of underdog kids, rejects from society (while really being exceptional), find themselves in a place to save the world (more than 8 of them, technically). There's some good action -- again, the flight scenes are great -- a couple of chuckles, and a solid ending. It's a couple of hours of escapist entertainment when it's at its best (which is pretty often).