I’ve been reading so much YA lately that I forgot one fundamentally important fact: middle grade fiction is awesome. If you’re someone who regularly reads YA and thinks that middle grade is a step too far (or too young), let me tell you why you’re wrong. YA fiction has in some ways become a victim of its own success, with hundreds of new titles trying emulate the aspects that made blockbuster novels so successful—seriously, can you name one YA book without a love triangle, a supernatural being, a dystopian setting, or a tragic instigating/concluding event? Granted the best YA turns these tropes on their head, but it still engages with them. Middle grade is about that magical time just before becoming a teenager—the time when kids are still carefree enough to be kids, but old enough to start uncovering the complex realities of their world. Middle grade fiction is full of tough, sensitive, loyal, and brave kids who have unexpected adventures everywhere from their backyards to Mars.
And that brings me to Mars Evacuees, the first in a duology by British author Sophia McDougall. In the future, Earth has been beset by invisible aliens called Morrors, who are intent on cooling the planet so they can eventually colonize it. The war has been raging since before twelve-year-old Alice Dare was born, and though she doesn’t know anything other than an Earth at war, she suspects the adults around her use the war as an excuse to tell kids what to do (she wonders if adults were any different when there wasn’t a war to blame it on…) As you can guess, the war is not going well for the humans, and with polar ice reaching all the way down to Alice’s boarding school in Nottingham, she’s evacuated to Mars with a select group of children, to train as soldiers in the Exo-Defense Force. Alice, whose mother is an ace pilot, famous around the world, isn’t wild about being a soldier, or living on Mars, but she supposes it couldn’t be worse than Muckling Abbot, her brilliantly named and predictably stodgy boarding school.
McDougall’s Mars is an unusual place, having been partially terraformed for human habitation, there are purple seas and smooth red hills, black mosses and pink clouds. There are also, conveniently, very few adults—a scientist and a Colonel with cybernetic legs—the rest of the authority figures at he base are androids and robot teachers. Alice soon makes friends with a resourceful group of kids, not unlike the brilliant kids of The Mysterious Benedict Society. There’s polyglot genius Josephine, the budding zoologist Noel, and his daredevil older brother Carl. Together they manage to pull through some pretty dire circumstances, saving the Earth, and the solar system, in the process. Now if this is all sounding a little out there, Alice will agree with you. Her voice absolutely makes the book—she’s insightful and hilarious, her dry British sarcasm shining through all the strange and downright awful situations she’s put in. How many middle grade, or YA books for that matter, get into the mating habits of aliens? This one does, and Alice is just as awkward and British about it as you’d imagine.
Mars Evacuees is a great galloping read that is, in a strange way, part The Martian, part The Left Hand of Darkness, and part Ender’s Game. If you liked any of those, then this is a must-read.