I read the first book in this series, The Outback Stars, earlier in the year, and while I enjoyed it, it didn't totally overwhelm me with its brilliance. All the same, I liked it enough to reserve the sequel from the library. I think part of the reason I wasn't totally captivated by the first book was that it focussed largely on the running of the Stores section of a large starship, with a small diversion into a larger, more mystical plot. It was interesting, but all the details on shipboard practices were not totally my thing (on the other hand, I have a friend who just loved the book for exactly that reason).
In this second book, the main protagonists from The Outback Stars are now married, stationed on-planet and trying to ignore their bizarre trip through the alien travel spheres that happened at the end of the previous volume. Of course, things don't work out that way, and before long both Jodenny and Myell find themselves caught up in both unwilling research on the spheres and combating an alien invasion.
There was so much more to this book, I felt. McDonald goes further with Aboriginal mythology, infusing the vanished aliens who built the spheres with the Dreamtime as their history. They remain enigmatic figures about which little is known, but we do learn more about the sphere system and how Myell's destiny is linked to it. Jodenney on the other hand, is left behind in the more prosaic "real" world, dealing with alien spaceships in orbit around Earth.
McDonald threw out a lot of names, ideas and concepts in the first book without providing a lot of detail about what they meant or how they fitted into the landscape of her books but here she goes into more detail - unfortunately not in consideratin of the reader but because the plot requires it, but all the same it made the world she has created a lot deeper and more real which helped with my understanding of the story. I now wonder if I would get more out of the first book if I went and reread it.
It's a much tighter, faster paced story too, as both Myell and Jodenny deal with their problems and Myell finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the Dreamtime, much against his will. The ending is downbeat, but there's another book coming (The Stars Blue Yonder, due out in July 2009) and my gut feeling is that Jodenny and Myell's story is far from over. The ending fits with the tale, and doesn't really feel like an ending at all, so while it wasn't exactly a happy ending, I wasn't left feeling totally depressed about it either. Instead, I found myself hanging out for the next book.
Two lost characters from The Outback Stars reappear, and while I'm totally on board with what happened to Sam and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to him in the next book, I found the whole thing on the planet with the crocodile women and the return of the tech (sorry, I can't remember her name) to be kind of weird. It didn't seem to fit with either the mysticism or the science aspects of the book as it tried to cross between both and was really the only place the book failed me.
All in all, The Stars Down Under is fascinating and different both for its use of Aboriginal mythology and its generally neat blending of science fiction and fantasy. Jodenny and Myell remain fascinating characters and I want to know what happens to them next. I also desperately want them to have a happy ending, although I have no idea what I expect that to be.
The Stars Down Under
Outback Stars, Book 2