4 out of 5 stars
Teens in space! I saw this book described as such, “… with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.” An appealing claim, but one that overestimates our heroes, Jules Addison and Mia Radcliffe. An homage, certainly, but our intergalactic adolescents are likable enough on their own credibility.
Jules is a whiz-teen Oxford student whose father Elliott is famous for two things: deciphering a hidden message in an alien broadcast that sent humans into space seeking a replacement for Earth, and later, decoding a second message hidden in the first one that no, we definitely should NOT do that. The second act gets Elliott imprisoned by the International Alliance. (Audiobook bonus: Jules is voiced by Steve West, the same actor who plays Elias in the An Ember in the Ashes series.)
Mia is a high school dropout orphan who scrapes by scavenging semi-post-apocalyptic Chicago. (Think Divergent + The Force Awakens.) She’s got an illegal sister and a big debt to pay.
Jules and Mia end up together on Gaia, the alien planet of the Undying, who sent the hidden message. Together they must solve a series of (here’s where I’ll give it the) Indiana Jones-style archaeological puzzles and find whatever the Undying left behind. Jules wants it to be educational, Mia needs it to be lucrative.
There’s a lot of fun here: Kaufman and Spooner had a good time writing the temple, riddles and puzzles. As in their excellent Starbound series (review), they draw a clear picture of space-faring life. The bones of the alien civilization make for solid world-building: advanced beyond our comprehension, they drove themselves out of existence. It’s pure sci-fi, with technology, linguistics, tricks and traps. Jules works well as the brains; just hapless enough to need Mia, but not so painfully inept that she’d never consider him an equal. Mia’s good as the bravery of the operation. She’s headstrong, practical, and trying to rein in her recklessness. They’re good opposites who, of course, attract.
It’s a fairly sparse story, with just an A plot centered completely on Jules and Mia. They get a little navel-gazey in the middle, when they begin simultaneously falling for each other. It’s so obvious the story is headed there that the requisite chapters of teen angst are unnecessary and trying. But at least they happen in an alien obstacle course half a galaxy away!
The world at large comes into play late, setting up for Book 2. Politics, greed, economy, and the desperate human rush to own and exploit any available resource are succinctly present when needed. But they don’t overshadow the fun bits, and Mia and Jules (and Kaufman and Spooner) pay solid homage to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon and Indy’s race through the Grail Temple.