Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

Mars Evacuees is an interesting animal: lightweight yet heavy, humorous and grim, silly yet serious. Similarly, the characters are both likeable but also so annoying as to make a reader actively dislike them. And the plot is both well trod yet devoid of the tropes littering the genre. A very rushed feeling ending comes after a lot of ‘nothing happening’; the plot winds up neatly in 5 pages. So, although well written, I had a hard time ‘understanding’ this book; that confusion kept me from really investing in characters or story.

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Story: an alien group has been attacking Earth – terraforming it into an iceball and killing countless numbers. It looks like the alien invisibility technology has stumped Earth military and the World may soon be lost. A group of special kids are sent to Mars for protection – each having either a very important relative or having aced a special test. Alice Dare’s mother went from a desk job to war hero – and now her daughter has a slot on the multicultural evacuation ship.  Alice meets up with others – odd emo Josephine, crazy Australian Carl, Uptight and selfish American Lilly and Swedish Christa. At the Mars base, they are to train to become fighter pilots. Until the unthinkable happens and all the adults disappear.  As the situation at the school devolves into a “Lord of the Flies” scenario, Alice figures out she’s going to have to do something quick to save herself and the other kids from starving to death.

As can be seen from the plot outline above, what I read is very different than what was promised on the blurb on the back of the book.  Perhaps it is British stoic humor that is confusing me, but I expected something more amusing with a James bond type of smart girl who saves her friends.  Instead, Alice does very little of the saving and it is much more about how every one of her friends contribute to save the day while the other group of bullies nearly gets them all killed and impede progress. I guess even in a Mars colony, middle school politics of us vs. them prevail.

The writing is smooth but very self effacing. I had a hard time understanding Alice other than that she resents her parents being away so much to save the planet. She both likes and hates most of the people on “team Alice” and is rarely sure of what to do. It’s refreshing to have a heroine with doubt but I also prefer her to have enough of a backbone to make decisions and then regret them later if they didn’t work. But Mars Evacuees was really about teamwork and how a group can synergize their knowledge. As a lesson in Mars Evacuees for readers, that is a very admirable one. Unfortunately, it was offset by the flip side – when a team gets together and becomes bullies who take/intimidate/harass and ultimately screw things up.

The aliens were a let down, admittedly. They were pretty much humans in a different skin. All the foibles and small thinking were contrasted only by creating a species with 5 or 6 different genders. Of course, the middle school kids are going to meet a middle school alien and figure out that they aren’t that different after all.  Kids are smart and adults are stupid.

I wish the characters had been more interesting. Kids may like that we don’t have an “Alex Ryder” who does everything perfectly and still makes fun of the bad guys. There is quite a bit of seriousness in this book and the humor is slight and rarely balances the story. Alice ended up being fairly boring and her friends not interesting enough to be unusual. Josephine shrugs everything off, Carl messes up, Noel looks at the world innocently, and Alice rarely stands up for herself and goes with the flow.

I think the book could have cut out quite a bit of the school time to make for a more interesting read. The only thing worse than being in school is reading about it. That said, it is an easy read and decently written.  Reviewed from an advance readers copy provided by the publisher.

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