Space Hostages, by Sophia McDougall (HarperCollins, February 2016), is the sequel to Mars Evacuees, one of my favorites of last year (here's my review), and of course I had been meaning to get to it for ages, and am very glad I finally did! And though the echoes of English children's books about WW II evacuations, one of the things that made me warm right up to Mars Evacuee., aren't in this one, it is very good indeed on its own terms, and really hits the notes I look for in good sci fi for young readers.
Alice and the other "plucky kids" (as the media has dubbed them) from the first book, Josephine ( whose a supersmart black girl, adding diversity to the ensemble), Carl, Noel, and Thsaaa (the alien Morror the human kids befriended on Mars, stopping a war between their species in the process, who also adds non-binary gender diversity), are headed off into space again. This time it's to celebrate the completion of a new home world for the Morror. The most advanced spaceship on Earth, the almost sentient Helen, is going to take them there, and it will be a fun trip and a chance to enjoy each other's company in civilized circumstances.
But this isn't what happens. An alien race, the Krakkiluks, already had plans in place to make the new home of the Morrors part of their great expansion--a colonizing sweep through vast reaches of space. And so they capture the Earth space ship, and hold its occupants hostage in exchange for the un-terraforming of the contested world. The kids, however, turn out to be bad hostages. Two get thrown out of an airlock, and one leaps out to save them (along with the robot goldfish teacher readers of the first book will remember fondly); the other two engage in a desperate effort (made less desperate by Morror technology) to reach the space ship Helen, free all the other humans, and escape.
The kids who left the Krakkiluk ship in abrupt and potentially fatal circumstances live, and end up crash-landing on an alien planet. The planet has already been subsumed by the great expanse of the Krakkiluk, and its people are de facto slaves, controlled by pain. The kids hook up with the resistance movement, and more things go wrong....but then they go right and it all works out (this was me feeling that the book should just be read, and not synopsized, but I wanted to get the political/social dynamic into the synopsis somehow, because it leads to a Point).
The Point--one of the great things about science fiction is that it can make you think in new ways about your own society, causing genuine growth in the reader without triggering defensive reactions because after all it isn't real. The great expanse of the Krakkiluk and their oppression of colonized peoples is oh so familiar, but it's not presented as a didactic moral lesson; instead it's part of a really fun and exciting sci fi adventure in space with aliens and cool creature and landscapes and space ships and all the good stuff. (The alien planet is really fun sci fi exploration, and fortunately the Goldfish is able to help with the communication issues).
So basically Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages are my go to books if anyone asks me for a sci fi recommendation for an 11-13 year old. They are fun and thought-provoking, and what more can one ask? (I wouldn't read Space Hostages without having read M.E. though. It's possible, but not very pointful).
Note on 13 year olds--13 is technically over the age limit for middle grade. But now that I have a 13 year old of my own, he is not showing any signs of wanting to move toward YA. He still identifies as a kid, and so I am upping my own MG age limit to 13 in his honor......and getting Mars Evacuees out of the library for him.
So the Kirkus reviewer liked Space Hostages too, and gave it a curious piece of praise I've never seen before--"The surprise plot twists are genuinely surprising, and there are moments when it really seems possible the main characters won’t survive." So there you go-if you like worrying about people in really serious danger in space, this one's for you!