First in a series
By Dan Krokos
Available now from Starscape (Tor-Forge/Macmillan)
I have to thank Cecelia and Charlotte for reigniting my interest in middle grade fiction. It's led to me finding some real gems. THE PLANET THIEVES is something I don't think I've encountered in middle grade before - military sci-fi. The closest I can think of are the later Alien Adventures books by Bruce Coville. I loved those books, and I enjoyed THE PLANET THIEVES quite a bit. The genre isn't the only unexpected thing.
THE PLANET THIEVES was darker than I expected. I was expecting a bit of a madcap adventure based on the cover and tagline ("Two civilizations. One planet. And a race to see who steals it first!"). But those two civilizations are at war, and neither side has behaved their best. Dan Krokos does a good job of describing war, and the actions that are acceptable and unacceptable during wartime, in a way that's suitable for children but not didactic. (There's also a subtle environmental moral, since both races want a new planet after using their own up.)
Mason Stark is a thirteen-year-old cadet on a diplomatic mission. He and seventeen other cadets are just supposed to be along for the ride, but when their ship is attacked by the Tremist, the crew is killed or taken hostage. The cadets have to take charge and Mason become acting captain almost by accident. His two greatest allies are Tom, a former rival who likes to play by the rules, and Merrin, his best friend who he has a bit of a crush on.
THE PLANET THIEVES weakest aspect is that it's rather boy heavy. Tom's mother and Mason's older sister are both competent, in-charge women who get sidelined early in the novel. Willa is the only named female cadet aside from Merrin, and she only plays a part for a split second - fake crying to act as bait. Several of the male cadets get to take turns as leader. Merrin, meanwhile, has to be rescued at least twice. Tom and Mason at least trade off rescuing each other. When Merrin does get a chance to save Mason, it's Tom who saves him instead. In the end, Merrin only gets to keep her agency by the skin of her teeth. She's not weak. But she is relegated to the damsel-in-distress and love interest roles despite the fact we're told she's a fierce fighter and good with a computer.
The strongest aspect is the plot. THE PLANET THIEVES is fast and furious, keeping Mason constantly on the move. They're doing anything they can think of to save the day, but what the day needs saving from keeps changing. I also liked that Mason rarely comes out ahead. He and his allies are clever, but they're thirteen and still training. They lose in physical contests against adults. They're out thought by high-ranking officers. But they keep trying, because they want to do what's right and Mason has the courage and charisma to keep them coordinated and motivated.
THE PLANET THIEVES is a terrific choice for sci-fi fans looking for culture clashes and unexpected revelations. (I'm definitely giving the nod to Doctor Who fans.) It ends with quite the hook for the sequel, and I know I'll be back for more. Be sure to read my interview with Dan Krokos.