Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Stray by Andrea K Höst

Stray by Andrea K Höst is the first book in the Touchstone trilogy and the second book of Höst's that I've read. The other was And All The Stars, which was one of my favourite reads of 2012 and which has been shortlisted for two Aurealis Awards.

Stray is about Cass, a Sydney teenager, who falls into a wormhole to another planet on her way home from her last HSC (High School Certificate) exam. In her school uniform and equipped only with her history notes, pencil case, an empty drink bottle, and a blank diary she'd bought as a present, she finds herself in a forest, all alone. The story is told through her diary entries.

I liked Cass. Her voice was entertaining to read and the main thing that saved the book during some of the slower patches. She throws in a lot of geeky and Australian references which made me think the book might be a little inaccessible (to non Australian geeks) until I got to the end and discovered that a) there was a glossary and b) it contained the geeky references and Australianisms as well as the alien stuff.

Stray starts off as a survivor story with Cass having to find food and water — and not get eaten by anything herself — on the planet she's been transported to. It was believable; Cass didn't have some secret past as a hard core scout or anything so she was mostly going off common sense and random snippets of half-remembered information. Eventually, after chasing sheep around for their wool and several brushes with death, Cass is rescued by psychic space ninjas (her phrase) and the bulk of the story takes place in an advanced alien society. With psychic space ninjas.

As I said, I enjoyed Stray, but found it a little slow at times. Because it's written as a series of diary entries and the only days Cass skips writing are when she physically can't, there were a few "nothing really happened today" entries. Those didn't actually bother me much, it was the "things happened today but they're not that crucial to moving the plot along" days that I felt could use tightening up. I suspect it's the sort of thing a professional editor might have addressed and that would have made it feel like things moved along more quickly. The structure was a bit unusual too in the sense that it didn't quite contain the traditional build-up, climax, resolution. Not that there wasn't excitement and action — there was, what else would space ninjas do? — but I suspect the larger arc is spread over the entire trilogy.

Don't let that put you off, though. I was never bored and now I wish I could read the next book straight away (but unfortunately I have some other books demanding my attention in the immediate future). I also hope Höst decides to write more SF in the future (other than And All the Stars, her other series are all fantasy) because more Aussie SF is always a good thing.

ETA: I forgot to mention something: I really liked that Höst took into account and remembered to deal with the fact that if you're a girl and you're stranded on an alien planet periods will happen. And they get ignored too often, so yay for realism!

I recommend Stray to fans of science fiction and perhaps space opera (although it's not quite space opera as I understand the definition) and science fantasy. The psychic aspects were (unsurprisingly) not exactly scientific and reminded me of a cross between super powers and the kind of astral plane Rowena Cory Daniells had in the Outcast Chronicles, though, again, not quite. I should also note that as far as putting fantasy into science fiction goes, Stray was the sort of mix I feel I can get behind. Psychic powers, yes; wizards in space, no.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, self-published
Series: Touchstone trilogy, book 1
Format read: ePub on iThings
Source: iBooks store (also available from SmashWords)
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

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