3 out of 4 stars
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Happenstance by Phil Sheehan is a hybrid of the science fiction and action genres (known in some circles as a techno-thriller). It follows Blake, a member of an anti-terrorist squad, as he embarks upon a mission to the edge of the solar system to learn more about and potentially make contact with a mysterious alien craft. His allies include the international members of his craft's crew, his team back on Earth, and a group of astronauts embarking on a separate mission that involves the recovery of an alien probe from Mars. Of course, there are also many people who want him to fail, whether to prevent the United States from making contact with aliens or simply to claim the discovery for themselves.
This book's greatest strength is, by far, its action scenes. It uses spacecraft as an extremely vivid backdrop, with conflicts and trials that could only happen in space. This all culminates in an extremely satisfying finale, which both ties up the anti-terrorist themes of the book and delivers an exciting, nerve-wracking conclusion. It's rare that I think a story truly deserves the thriller moniker, but this is certainly one of them.
The characterization is somewhat lackluster, though. Nearly all of the characters are practical-minded military men, and the only two female main characters are both linguists, for some reason. This lack of variety was occasionally grating, though the plentiful action and intrigue meant that it wasn't too distracting. The dialogue is realistic, too, and the writing style itself is generally effective. In addition, the book is well-edited, with only a handful of minor grammatical errors.
The narrative sometimes includes information that is, frankly, both boring and unnecessary. A character even recites a nearly word-for-word synopsis of the Wikipedia article about G-type main series stars, made even more jarring by the fact that they are an alien, so they probably wouldn't classify stars the same way as humans. There are also no female astronauts, despite NASA's nearly 50-50 gender split, an unrealistic detail which stands out next to the thorough research done in other areas.
Ultimately, I think the thriller aspects of this book carry it so well that it deserves 3 out of 4 stars. Despite its flaws, it's still a gripping action novel with well-integrated science fiction elements. For readers who prize excitement above all else, this is a great choice. If you enjoy more esoteric science fiction concepts or complex character interactions, it might not be the best book for you.
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