Thursday, 4 May 2017

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Oh dear. I full blown love you, Malorie Blackman, but this was not good. I had heard the premise of this book at YALC last year- a super modern, feisty femaled, gender swapped Othello in space. Sounds good, right? Then it made it to the YA Book Prize shortlist and I was all WOOO! Sci-Fi on prize lists! Shut the air lock door! But then I read it and was so disappointed.

So Vee and Aidan are the sole crew of the Earth ship Aidan. Their parents and the rest of the crew were killed by a sudden, mysterious virus and the twins are on their Earthbound journey when Vee recklessly launches a rescue mission to a previously uninhabited planet that is currently under attack from Mazons, a bitter xenophobic alien race. After a daring, risky rescue, 22 survivors are snatched aboard. Tensions are high as Vee and Aidan realise they have just filled their ship with strangers capable of who knows what, and they have to adapt to being around people again after 3 years of solitude. Vee gets to know some of the refugees, sparking a connection with broody hunk Nathan quite early on. All goes well for a time, but the new crew members, just as they are adjusting to the prospect of freedom and sanctuary, begin to be picked off in a series of very puzzling 'accidents'.

The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Vee and Nathan. Sometimes this really, really works (see: Trouble, by Non Pratt; We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan) but in this instance I struggled very hard to distinguish the voices. Despite the separate fonts, I still had to constantly check who was speaking because the voices were not particularly strong. Sometimes I had the wrong character entirely and then got thrown some anomalous context that made me realise I'd gone wrong...it didn't make for a very fluid reading experience. I found both characters to be incredibly annoying, self absorbed, untrustworthy and untrusting to the point of mania and just so consistently clueless. They would always say one thing, then do another. "Let's keep our relationship secret" then they flirt outrageously and drop saucy comments and double entendres in front of the other crew, confident they are above notice. Vee constantly tells herself that she trusts Nate, then acts like he's the shiftiest guy ever. Or she's the most suspicious person ever. There's occasional hiding things from each other with good intentions, misinterpretation and then overblown falling out about it. The guessing. The second guessing. Nathan seemed emotionally manipulative, flip-flopping between simpering suck up and bitter, petulant child. He might also be a sex addict. Vee completely let him steal her agency and independence, which it is possible to retain, no matter how head over heels in love one claims to be.

I really liked the plot's parallels to the Underground Railroad and the introduction of info about the work of the Resistance towards the end. Early on, the book reveals a very divided society, made up of 'Elites' and 'drones'. The latter are an abused, subjugated underclass, consigned to backbreaking labour in jobs too deadly and places too remote to send regular people. The slavery parallels are obvious, but it's also a comment on penal systems, crime and punishment and the oppression of one group by a more powerful, more autonomous one. I liked this aspect of the novel a lot, and would like to have found out more about the Resistance, which emerges properly within the final pages. It is hinted at earlier, but only ever mused upon in one character's thoughts.

I'd worked out part of the "Twist" quite early- I'm not sure if it's because I watched Red Dwarf  as a kid or because it's a bit obvious that something isn't right- even if my guess was *slightly* off...I won't say. As for the murder mystery element- it felt a bit Sunshine but with a less crazy motive. I couldn't help but feel that the identification and capture of the murderer took a back seat to Vee and Nathan's steamy action and all their juvenile squabbling and dramatic trust issues. In between the two of them taking turns to blow hot and cold on each other, I kept forgetting there was a rampant murderer on board because it's the least tense thing ever. It's a bit predictable, in that it's the least likely character, but is one of the few that has been adequately fleshed out.

The book features one of the most fatal cases of insta-love I've ever read. Yes- I get that sometimes people feel strong emotional connections very quickly after meeting a person. I guess it's rare, but it's not impossible. But this is two infatuated teenagers, who seem to think that going overboard on the insta-love is OK, as long as you constantly comment about how ridiculous and dangerous and out of character is is, how you never thought it would happen, how silly you feel to be a slave to your own urges in this way. It's a bit embarrassing. The kissing scenes go over very, very well trodden ground, all 'darting tongue', 'wandering hands' and earlobe nibbling...the sex scenes are a bit too explicit for younger readers, but too clich├ęd for older ones- so I'm not sure who this is really aimed at. At least in Othello, the secret marriage takes place before the play begins so we're spared the Love is An Open Door part of the relationship.

Whilst I definitely don't think this book is for me, and I don't think it was crafted particularly well, it's hard to say if the most frustrating elements (the constant trust issues, the blowing hot and cold, the willful ignorance, the misguided self-sacrifice, the 'let's just look longingly at each other and not say our actual feelings' are the author's fault. Possibly it's Shakespeare's fault. I do think this falls well below Malorie's usual standards. I think it had a lot of potential in the setting and the concept, but the whole thing was lacking the polish and the emotional impact of Malorie's other works. Which is such a shame, because she is an enormous, glorious talent and inspiration and arguably one of the founding mothers of the UKYA landscape. Chasing the Stars was frustrating for all the wrong reasons. Rather than being enraged by injustice and prejudice, I found that I was mostly frustrated at the boring space-talk, the well-trodden romantic trails, the uninspiring murder mystery and the irritating characters.

I'm sorry. I will still read all of your future books and still love all of your other books.

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