Tuesday, 19 May 2015

'From A Distant Star' by Karen McQuestion

First things first, I need to say a huge thank you to Skyscape, for accepting my request to review this title on NetGalley, and to NetGalley for the service that they provide.

*This review will contain spoilers!* 

Emma's boyfriend, Lucas, is dying from cancer, and she's the only one who hasn't given up hope. His parents are preparing for the end, his brother is avoiding the entire situation and the nurses visiting their farm are readying funeral plans. Frustrated with everyone's lack of belief, Emma visits the home of self-proclaimed witch Mrs Kokesh, where she gets given a potion to save his life - and a warning that when he awakens from his coma, he will not be the same. Emma follows Mrs Kokesh's instructions exactly - rubbing the potion around Lucas's eyes and mouth, praying that everything will work out. When a loud bang sounds from outside, Emma doesn't think much about it, too worried about whether or not the potion will work. But when Lucas wakes up acting like a completely different person, she connects the dots, leading to her embarking on a journey to save the boy she loves, and send home the alien trapped inside of him... 
It's been a long time since I've read a good alien story that wasn't dystopian, so 'From A Distant Star' was a breath of fresh air for me. Don't get me wrong, I loved 'The 5th Wave' by Rick Yancey and 'Untaken' by J. E. Anckorn, but it was relieving to meet a friendly, harmless alien in our ordinary, every day world. There were some brilliant moments of social commentary from Scout, such as the one below: 

"This is a very confusing planet. People believe things that aren't true about other people just because of how they look and what kind of vehicle they drive. Why can you not wait and see who they are inside before you make a decision?"
"Because we're afraid. [...] It's better to be cautious."
"That is a sad thing."
I always think the way authors can write the viewpoints of other beings new to our planet is a very intriguing and enlightening thing, and the above quote made me stop and think - it wasn't really something I'd ever considered before, it was just the way that the world worked. If an author can make you contemplate your very existence, you can tell that they're a brilliant writer, so I was very impressed with Karen McQuestion's characterisation of Scout.
But other than the social commentary, this was still a brilliant novel! Scout was so much more than just a fish out of water - as he tried to fit in with the humans and attempted to get to know their world a bit better, we learnt a lot about him and fall in love with him. He's such an innocent character, meaning you just can't help but feel for him, and while I was rooting for him to get home and back to his family, I wouldn't have minded this being a series - I just wanted to read more about him and his adorable personality.
As well as falling in love with Scout, I loved the characteristics of his world that we are given. The planet he came from stays a mystery for most of the novel - we don't know where in the galaxy it is, or even what it's called, but with the information that Scout gives us we still get a marvellous picture of it. The disclosure that their technology is intuitive and doesn't need controlling, and that their plants can sense exactly where you need shade and bend to your will, gives enough similarity between our planets to still feel realistic, so I was glad that Karen wrote it more subtly. It would have detracted from the effective imagery if we'd had an over the top description of exactly how the planet worked.
Meanwhile, Emma is one of those protagonists who gets very hot-headed at times - she gets an idea in her head and can't really go off course, meaning that at multiple points throughout the novel it seemed as though she was going to do something really stupid - but Lucas's brother, Eric, and Scout both managed to keep her on track, stopping her from messing everything up. I found the interactions between her and others quite funny, the main scene being when she attempts to shoot open a door after failing to shoot one open earlier on, but she's so convinced that she can do it so Scout just looks at her like 'really?'. I think I like it when protagonists get things wrong, because too often the protagonist gets everything right and it's the supporting cast who makes all of the mistakes: having those roles reversed was definitely a great change.
I also loved the fact that the direction the novel was going in wasn't predictable. There are multiple bad guys in this novel, and it seemed to be whichever direction Emma and Scout headed to for sanctuary they'd soon be sprinting away from with their tails between their legs, and I enjoyed that for a change - there aren't enough novels where every other character seems to be an obstacle in our quest, and the characters have to work out how to save themselves all alone. The sense of despair was really palpable - when the characters could see no other options, neither could we, which definitely helped with the development of the plot.
There were a few aspects of the novel that did seem just a bit too predictable, though. When Emma and Scout have to leave one of the places that they think will help them, all they're armed with is the name of an ex-employee, and while driving down the road they pass her decorated mailbox. While this was a bit too convenient I know it was just to move the plot forwards, but it took away from what was otherwise a realistic novel. Even the discovery of the two people who helped them after their car broke down was more believable - if you found a bar in the middle of nowhere you would be expecting bad people to be inside, so the juxtaposition of the bar with the elderly square dancers was completely unexpected, meaning it wasn't too surprising they found someone to help out.
Other than that disappointing development, every thing else in the novel was really enjoyable - the ending was what I'd been expecting, so there wasn't anything too mind-blowing, but I loved Karen's writing style and I really did feel for the characters. I hadn't heard of Karen until I read this novel, but I enjoyed her writing so much that I'm definitely going to have to check out some of her older novels!
I do highly recommend this one if you're looking for a YA alien novel that stands out a bit in the current climate - and I recommend it to fans of E.T. because, despite the fact that I haven't seen that movie yet, I think it's quite similar to that, but in a more grown up setting.

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