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Randoms by David Liss
Cover Artist: Derek Stenning
Review by Ernest Lilley
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781481417792
Date: 25 August 2015 List Price $17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Interview with David Liss / Show Official Info /

When the alien Confederation of Planets contacts Earth's governments with an offer to send four young humans to represent the planet as a candidate for admission into galactic society, Zeke Reynolds unexpectedly finds himself rounding out a team that includes a math genius, a chess champion, and a martial arts pro. His special talent? Aside from an encyclopedic knowledge of SF pop culture tropes and a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing. Zeke's a random, the every-man element that the aliens insist on so that they get to see not just the best and brightest, but what the rest of the planet's like.

And it's just a coincidence that Zeke's father created a failed SF series called Colony Alpha before he died in a car crash, a series about a planet caught between two galactic civilizations.

Zeke's happy to go to the stars. What fanboy wouldn't be? The icing on the cake is that technology that Earth will get if it's admitted to the Confederation will cure his mother's crippling ALS -- Lou Gehrig's disease. He expects outer space to be weird but what he doesn't expect is that the other team members are going to shun him, based on data collected over previous trials that randoms will pull their scores down, or that the government will send the nanny from hell along to ride herd on them, one who'd done everything she could to get Zeke replaced with someone useful.

After traveling thousands of light-years, Zeke finds himself in the same petty cliquishness he left behind in his high school. Except that he's not the only random. There are three planets testing for addition, so there are three randoms. There would have been four teams, but there was an incident along the way and if Zeke hadn't been in the wrong place at the right time, it would have been a real short book, but you'll get to that on your own.

If their own teams won't have them, the randoms best bet is to team up on their own, so Zeke soon makes friends with Steve, a scrappy lizard, and Tiamet, the devious cyber-expert whose feline looks are straight out of manga. Zeke always wanted friends who'd have your back when things got rough, but he didn't realize he'd have to go to the end of the galaxy to find them.

Despite the assurances of the aliens when parental permission slips were being handed out, the galaxy isn't the safe place they were assured it was. In fact, the Earth and other worlds being tested are right in the middle of an uneasy standoff between the Confederation and the Phandric Empire, and the candidates are part of a deeper game than any of them could imagine. Unless, of course, you've got an encyclopedic knowledge of SF, SF that's been carefully seeded with information about the actual state of the galaxy for decades by Confederation agents.

Zeke, Steve, and Tiamet may be randoms, and maybe nobody wants them around, but these wildcards might just be the galaxy’s only hope.

Author David Liss is a self confessed fanboy, and it shows. I lost count of the SF references that Zeke comes up with, though I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.  Zeke wonders early on if they're in an Ender’s Game scenario, and periodically tries to figure things out by using movies as a model. Since we know that a lot of what we think of as science fiction has been "helped" along by the Confederation, that works pretty well, and provides readers with a lot they can relate to.

Of course, this isn't such a new idea, going back to the 1930s and Arthur Clarkes' short story Security Check (Fantasy House, 1957) where the writer of a SF TV series is suddenly confronted with the space patrol type vessel he thought he'd dreamed up. The more obvious reference is, of course, The Last Starfighter (1984), in which a video arcade game is sent to Earth as part of a recruiting campaign for starfighters. Zeke's gaming practice comes in handy, and the aliens badguys have a distinct resemblance to the Space Orcs in Warhammer 40K, but Randoms is actually a much more intelligent book than The Last Starfighter.

Randoms has middle grades and tweens in its crosshairs, but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying it. If you love SF in film and comics, you'll find this an totally enjoyable. It's funny, fast-paced, had plenty of character and team dynamics and enough galactic polity and intrigue to keep things from being too easy for anyone. The story opens with Zeke reflecting that he doesn't live in a perfect world the good and evil get their just deserts, and closes with the reality that it's not a perfect universe either.

This is the first book in a series, and though it delivers a complete story arc it leaves us hoping that Liss isn't distracted by anything that will keep him from publishing the next volume in short order. As one of the characters notes toward the end of the book:

"It was fun. We should do it again. Soon."

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