Saturday, December 5, 2009

Review of Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel by K.A. Holt

Holt, K.A. Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel. Random House, 2009.

Good science fiction for kids can be hard to find, and those titles all seem to take place on Earth. Sometimes the kid protagonist comes in contact with aliens (Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday or Terry Pratchett's Only You Can Save Mankind), sometimes the kid IS an alien (Pamela Service's Alien series), sometimes the kid comes in contact with amazing scientific powers or gadgets (Reisman's Simon Bloom: Gravity Keeper), and sometimes time travel is involved (Stead's When You Reach Me). If we venture into YA territory, we find Bechard's Spacer and Rat (gritty space station) and Anderson's Feed (features jaunts to Mars and the moon).

While I enjoy Earth-based SF, there is something about a tiny tin can of a spaceship, packed with the messy lives and relationships of humans, hurtling through infinite, deadly space, that really gets my geek blood humming. How lovely, then, to find a good space-based SF title aimed right at middle-grade readers.

Readers no sooner meet Mike Stellar than they are whisked off with him on a colonizing journey to Mars. His parents work for the Project, which terraforms planets for human habitation, but it's still quite a shock when they tell Mike that they'll be traveling with the upcoming expedition - which leaves the next day. Within a couple days of space travel, Mike knows something peculiar is going on. A beefy "executive assistant" named Mr. Shugabert (Sugar Bear as far as Mike's concerned) shadows the family everywhere, a weird girl named Larc attaches herself to Mike like a leech, and horrifically, Mike's scary teacher from Earth shows up on board. It seems there is a conspiracy - but it takes Mike a while to figure out what it is and who the Good Guys and Bad Guys are.

Who the bad guys are and what they want and how they plan to get it - is the thinnest part of the book, being rather lightly sketched in. Or maybe I was paying so much attention to the book's real attractions, which were Mike's ebullient personality, his penchant for throwing himself headfirst at trouble, and the breezy, slangy, and often extremely funny way he narrates his story, that I missed some crucial plot points. Larc, the tow-headed tall girl with bright blue braces, a hooting laugh and wicked sense of humor, and a knack for off-the-cuff comments that tend to knock Mike off-balance every time, is a heroine after my own heart - even if she is harboring a rather startling secret about her own identity.

Like most good spaceship-based SF, there are long and sterile corridors, doors that whoosh open in unexpected ways, airlocks, and a pervasive tone of subversive humor. In short, everything an SF fan could wish for. It may well convert a few norms, as well. Highly recommended for ages 9 to 12.

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