Alien invaders have exploded a nearby star, turning it into a supernova, and only Johnny Mackintosh knows the Sun is next in line. Abandoning school and his football team, he and Clara travel to the galactic capital seeking help. Their mission stalls. After a decade missing, Johnny’s mysterious brother reappears, but what was he doing all those years away and whose side is he on? So begins an epic adventure full of devious aliens intent on ruling the galaxy and killing Johnny along the way. Can he survive to save his brother, and planet Earth, in time?
Not too long ago a fellow Twitter user asked her followers if they could recommend any good YA Science Fiction books. I immediately hit reply and told her that Keith Mansfield's Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London was a must-read in this genre. A couple of days later I was gob-smacked to receive an email from Mr Mansfield thanking me for the mention, and with the offer of a copy of his latest book, Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze.
Science Fiction is a genre that does not appear in YA fiction anywhere near as often as it should. Joe Craig's Jimmy Coates series has a sci-fi element with its genetically engineered titular hero, and the recently released Monster Republic also has a strong sci-fi storyline. However, both of these are set with both feet firmly rooted on Planet Earth with zero chance of space travel, let alone battles across the galaxy. Now I'm no die-hard Science Fiction fan when it comes to books, and apart from the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison, it is pretty rare for me to read an adult book in this genre, but I was intrigued by the synopsis and reviews I had read for Spirit of London and decided to give it a go, and I was certainly glad that I did - it is a superbly written action/adventure story made even more enjoyable by its highly original (in YA fiction at least) outer space setting.
However, this review is not about Spirit of London. Ever since reading (and being disappointed by) Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator I have often felt a little pessimistic before reading sequels to books I had thoroughly enjoyed - will the author manage to recreate the magic with their second book? It happens with movies as well (Speed 2 anyone?) and how many musicians have struggled with that "difficult second album" (thanks must go to Mr Mansfield for that allegory). However, with Star Blaze my pessimism was totally unfounded - in the same way that The Empire Strikes Back improved on Star Wars: A New Hope, so too does Star Blaze improve on its predecessor, and that is praise indeed. And the parallels don't end there - like Empire, Star Blaze is also a much darker book in places than the first in the series.
There are so many things I loved about this book that I don't really know how to start (and I also have to be very careful not to produce any spoilers for those of you who have not yet read Spirit of London). Firstly, the characters are very well developed.... all of them, not just Johnny (ok, nearly all of them - some element of mystery has to be maintained in order for there to be revelations in future books). The world building is also outstanding in my opinion, although as I have already said I am no expert on this genre. However, I personally found it both convincing and generous in its detail, without becoming unwieldy. On top of this, there is also enough action to rival the glut of boy secret agent books we have seen in recent years, and the plot twists and turns so it is difficult to second guess exactly what will happen next. Mr Mansfield gives the reader just enough information to keep them nervously attempting to guess where the often nail-biting story is going, and occasionally I guessed correctly; however, there were also many occasions where my guesses were way off course.
I have a feeling that in this modern world where vampires seem to be ruling the roost in books, TV and other areas of modern culture these books could be easily overlooked. However, with a little perseverance to get fully into the story I doubt very much that many readers will put these books down half finished once the action kicks in.
As a small addition to this review I thought I would just say a little more about Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series that I mentioned earlier. For Young Adults who like the Science Fiction genre, and who also like a little humour in their books, then this series is definitely worth trying. The series starts with The Stainless Steel Rat, although a number of prequel books covering the earlier life the of main character, "Slippery Jim" DiGriz, were later written. "Slipper Jim" is a con-man and thief who is caught and then drafted by the powers-that-be in order to aid them in their fight against more serious criminals - he really is the sort of hero that Young Adult readers will love.