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January 27, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson

I had a good time last year with the Australian Women Writers Challenge. More to the point, I discovered several writers whose work – especially their long-form work – I might never otherwise have come across. I see no good reason to abandon the effort to enure that I include in my reading diet a healthy dose of local content authored by women. In fact I’m going to steal an idea I read somewhere (it might have been Sean Wright’s Adventures of a Blogonaut) and attempt to read, every month, at least one novel written by a woman, one by a man, one short story collection or anthology, and one non-fiction work. Variety is important. Anyway, this is my first review for the AWWC for 2013.

Rayessa and the Space Pirates is the debut novel from Canberra author Donna Maree Hanson. I’ll state right off the bat that I’m not at all the target audience for this piece – I don’t read a lot of Young Adult-oriented science fiction, and I’m even less well-versed in the romance field. So take my comments with whatever salt dosage you think appropriate.

RatSP is a fun romantic space adventure aimed (I presume) at young adult readers. Rae Stroder is a cheerful but somewhat hapless young teenager who has been abandoned by her father to manage an asteroid-based refuelling outpost which is in rapid decline as a result of her earnest yet untrained maintenance. Her only companion is a brain-damaged engineer named Gris, who can keep the lights on and the oxygen flowing, more or less, but can’t carry his end of a conversation. Charged with holding the fort until her Dad returns, Rae is barely hanging in there. Her clothes are improvised tatters, her diet is unhealthily bland and her engagement with the wider universe appears to be disturbingly constrained to the consumption of trashy romance videos. Her fringe-dwelling existence is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a humourless auditor with a number of sternly worded enquiries about the management of the station.

Rae is a risky lead character – while she’s tenacious and loyal to her absent parent, she is also naive, gullible, cheerful to the point of Pollyannaishness, not as resourceful as she needs to be and maddeningly uninquisitive about her straitened circumstances. And yet the opening chapters of this novellette work wonderfully well as screwball farce. Rae’s improvisations, as things begin to go wrong and her routine is forever dashed, are very funny (even if the implications of living aboard a decrepit space station at the edge of collapse are unsettling and somewhat glossed over). The dialogue is witty and fun, the situation is given just enough weight to make it plausible, and once it begins the action can fairly be described as rollicking.

Without giving anything away, the ending didn’t work as well for me as the beginning. The third act wraps up some plot threads more hastily than I would have liked, and brings in several new characters with challenging relationships to Rae whose plots are then resolved almost as soon as they are introduced. And some of the interesting characters from the second act never reappear at all. I think the story could have comfortably accommodated another chapter or two of plot developments in between Rae’s encounter with the titular baddies and the dramatic climax.

Then again, there is something to be said for a story that gets in, delivers its action and gets out again fast. RatSP is on the short side at some 30K-ish words, and with filthy slavers, illegal clones, embezzlement, space battles and an awkward romance jammed into it, there’s plenty of story to be had. It wasn’t really my thing, but it was quick and quirky fun.

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