Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking in the plot department as it concerns a rocket-fuel-laundering scheme and some questions of world-building. As a space romp, common wisdom holds that some intrigue should be in store, but Starflight is almost character-driven to a fault: when it does answer act one’s questions, it mostly does so with an emphasis on efficiency and action, leaving much to be desired in the rich details supplementary to character that define works of speculative fiction. And Landers, by swapping out the present-day high school backdrop of her previous series, may have sacrificed her means to a laid-back, high-spirited series opener in the process.
Starflight opens with a promising set of foils: Solara Brooks, whose record is so tarnished and her funds so low that she has to enter indentured servitude on an outgoing vessel, and Doran Spaulding, heir to a gobsmacking technologies fortune and beneficiary of Solara’s dire straits. The dynamic between these characters at curtain is unbridled hostility, pure and simple. It even has a class component, which Landers cleverly teases at when an unexpected conspiracy charge puts the authorities on Doran’s trail and a series of increasingly chaotic decisions on Solara’s part reverse their fortunes and land them both on a sketchy pirate ship en route to unregulated territory. Solara now plays the wealthy heiress and Doran is comically shuffled into the part of servant.
What follows is an elaborate chase across hangars and tourist planets, pursued by pirates, bounty hunters, the government, and all manner of trouble.
If you can lose yourself in it, Starflight is an adrenaline rush of the hyper-speed variety, with just enough ready to crash at the present moment to keep your eyes away from the framework. When it’s not a dangerous trade with ruthless pirates for a much-needed part, it’s the secret a crew member has been keeping that’s suddenly back and wants her dead. The happenings––hijinks, shenanigans, catastrophes––never stop. As high-powered and rip-roarin’ as this setup is, it pries time away from the central plot that really demands the work, and this short term gain ultimately creates an unsatisfying resolution for the ur-hijinks that initially set it all in motion.
Doran Spaulding, no matter how much the burgeoning enemies-to-lovers dynamic demands, is still not entirely off the hook by the time the book resolves his conspiracy charges. This stems from a combination of factors, chief among them the sustained sidelining of this plot until the very end (the ensuing discovery abruptly smacking the reader with no warning) and Landers’ lack of commitment to the lawless and conflict-ridden galaxy she’s created––like cyberpunk, but with an escape hatch. This particular symptom doesn’t make itself known everywhere––Landers is particularly good at emphasizing the daily toll of being on-the-run, from stark spaceship rations to constantly being ready to jolt out of a planet’s orbit at a moment’s notice. Her commitment wanes, though, on a much wider scope.
As the ship where Solara and Doran have taken refuge approaches the outer rim, fuel prices, the work of the Spaulding empire, skyrocket. In one particularly affecting scene, Landers paints a portrait of life in the outer rim that’s downright punishing, but reform, when Doran himself considers the idea, is easy, obvious, and doesn’t present any significant obstacle. The pages spent describing the desperate state of affairs wouldn’t be a waste if these disparities––not to mention the vast gulf in wealth and opportunity between Solara and Doran themselves––were entangled with the fuel fiasco. But as it stands, Starflight‘s backdrop of inequality and infighting fizzles out without being examined. The intrigue that serves as the story’s foundation suffers in the opposite corner besides. As a result, the book’s aftertaste is empty, to a degree. You can almost sense the effect it might have had with a few stronger ties.
But the book is bolstered by a tight-knit ensemble, and one that’s given comparable attention to that of the romance. The crew of the pirate ship doesn’t make for a fast and easy found family, but one that develops slowly and with care––and not without conflict. By all accounts, this gradual and largely auxiliary element accomplishes the book’s most impressive feats of character. It isn’t simply that Landers is generous with the downtime it takes to form a bond: she also puts these platonic relationships through the ringer in a way that only romantic relationships in YA generally earn (if that). Trust is broken, boundaries are breached, suspicions are had. Despite the fact that Starflight adopts the “gritty” space-outlaw aesthetic without ever really paying for it, it manages to be truly charming. This is due almost entirely to the cast: beautifully crafted, and the perfect companions for such a wild ride.