(review by Ronni Phillips)
Space Hostages is the sequel to 2014’s Mars Evacuees, and the series is a middle-grade adventure story told with wit, warmth, and humour. In the first book, children were sent to Mars for their own protection, and in order to be trained to fight in a war against the Morrors, alien invaders of Earth. Space Hostages expands McDougall’s space-faring universe as narrator Alice and her friends — dubbed to their irritation ‘the Plucky Kids of Mars’ by the media — have been sent to Alpha Centauri as part of a publicity stunt to signal the end of hostilities between humans and Morror and the start of a new era of cooperation. As nothing ever goes smoothly for Alice and her friends, what follows is a series of hair-raising, thought-provoking, and comical adventures.
As in Space Hostages, this is a story about families — those of blood and of choice. Alice is the daughter of Stephanie Dare, a famous war hero, and struggles with the weight of expectation this heritage brings. At the same time, her anxious, Earth-bound father’s (justifiable) desire to keep his daughter safe at home adds another layer of family tension. Meanwhile, Alice’s friend Josephine causes herself immense grief and stress trying to win the approval and recognition of her emotionally distant father. It’s not just parent-child relationships either: Josephine’s brilliant older sister Lena is travelling with the children, while brothers Carl and Noel return to share in the adventures, and outgoing Carl continues to struggle with his feelings of responsibility for his more reticent younger brother. It was great to have Noel and the Morror child Thsaa as point-of-view characters alongside Alice, as the narrative was enriched by their perspectives. Alice’s self-deprecating humour sits nicely beside Noel’s quiet courage and Thsaa‘s irritation with, and affection for, human social mores.
Another welcome touch is the fact that, as in Mars Evacuees, conflict is resolved not with violence, but through empathy, negotiation, compromise, and finding common ground. The series values the quiet, unglamorous work of scientists and diplomats, as well as the adaptability and curiosity of children. It also shows that colonial conflict and empire-building seldom end well, and in fact that ostensibly easy fixes to the problems of empire can have unintended consequences.
It’s worth remarking, finally, on the diversity of McDougall’s cast of human characters. Alice is white British, Josephine is black British, and Carl and Noel are Filipino-Australian. Secondary and background characters come from a similar variety of backgrounds. In Mars Evacuees, the eponymous children came from all over the world, and were instructed not only in science, spaceship piloting, and military tactics, but also world languages and history. McDougall continues in this vein in Space Hostages. The future she imagines is truly international, as well as interplanetary, a universe in which there is space for everyone’s story and perspective.