Starbounders, by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson (HarperCollins, June 2013) just about the most gratifying praise I think a kid can give a book--"I can't wait till my friends read this," he said, after devouring the book in almost a single sitting, "so that we can play Starbounders!" And indeed, the book is packed with enough action and adventure, cool technology and alien encounters, to inspire hours of imaginative play.
The people of Earth have no idea that there is a secret group of space-jumping, alien-fighting Starbounders representing humanity out there in the crowded galaxy. Zachary, though, has always known--his family has been Starbounders for generations. Now it's finally his turn to leave ordinary middle school behind and head off to the secret Starbounder academy, anxious about living up to the standards set by his famous family. Things don't go well, and it only takes a few days before Zachary and his two new friends (a fierce girl named Kaylee and an alien boy named Ryic) find themselves assigned to a stint as clean-up crew on an old space freighter as punishment for breaking school rules.
And then the freighter is high jacked when the interstellar prisoners it had on board escape, and it only narrowly misses crashing into a planet, and then Zachary and his friends are taken as hostages by one of the prisoners (a sort of newt-like alien, operating a humanoid robotic exoshell), and then they are stuck on an utterly inhospitable desert world, and things just Keep Happening!!! until finally it becomes clear that Earth itself is in danger (!) and the kids must foil the evil alien plot to destroy it.
So, yeah, lots and lots of action and adventure (almost overwhelmingly so), a fine premise, a modicum of character (the character development is sprinkled through so much excitement that it most definitely takes second stage). And the writing, full of vivid description, is perfectly adequate for the book's particular emphasis on non-stop leaping from one catastrophe to the next. Zachary's clearly the hero, but Kaylee and Ryic get to contribute meaningfully (girls and aliens will be comfortable playing Starbounders on the playground too).
Starbounders does what it sets out to do just fine--it is an entertaining, fast read for the young reader who complains about boring books, and who will be thrilled to see a bunch of kids foiling the plans of bad adults and flying around through space on desperate jumps from one danger to the next. It's not one, though, that older readers will necessarily enjoy for themselves; there's not quite enough thought-provoking substance underneath all the excitement.
This is the second young teens in space book of the year, the other being The Planet Thieves, by Dan Krokos (my review). Starbounders reads somewhat younger--I'd happily give it to a nine-year old; The Planet Thieves has a more complicated story line, and lacks the quick resolutions to danger of Starbounders; it works better, I think, for the eleven year old on up.
Note on cover: it's lovely to see kids (I assume they are Zachary and Kaylee) who can be read as any number of ethnicities! I'm not counting this, though, as an example of diversity, because the descriptions of the characters within the story are not specific enough (I didn't see any of Zachary; Kaylee has blond hair, with blue streaks-- who knows what color it really is).
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher