My teen son and I read this one, and we loved it! It's definitely upper middle grade, not for violence or sex or drug use or anything like that, but the tone is overwhelmingly and rather heavily dystopian. All hope is lost. Earth is being mined by one faction of warring aliens for a rare element and they don't give a whit about what the mining'll do to our lives afterward, although they pretend to care to get our cooperation.
Life in space, for the few who make it off the planet, is miserable. The universe is full of species whose planets have been mined this way and they're scattered to the far ends, the only living remnants of their cultures, languages, customs, etc. And it doesn't end on a hopeful note, at all, although there is a set-up for a second book.
Still, it will appeal to kids who want to read what space travel may probably be like for the first pioneers: full of terrible if nutritious food and constant food and water shortages, although breathable air seems to be in steady supply.
Twelve-year-old Leo is one of the lucky ones, according to his dad, Dr. Fender, who gets to leave Earth with the Coalition of Aykarians and other aliens who want to mine earth of a precious element that enables space travel.
Leo and his older brother, Gareth, are on a spaceship with their dad, who's conducting research into the element and new ways to use it, when the ship's attacked and boarded by the barbaric and horrific race, the Djarik, who're at war with the Aykarians and the Coalition. And now Earth, because the Djarik bombed Earth and killed Leo's mother in the process.
Their dad is taken prisoner by the Djarik and they leave the spaceship wounded, totally unable to motor. It's next boarded by pirates. Gareth and Leo get the brilliant idea to stowaway on the pirate ship, but there's only enough room for one, and Gareth makes sure Leo's on the ship when it leaves.
The plan, at least in the beginning, is for Leo to get help for the stranded and slowly dying crew marooned in space.
Captain Bastion Black, aka Baz, has other plans. He'll keep Leo alive, with his crew of Kat, who's got a bionic arm; Boo, one of those ragged remnants of species who've been hopelessly broken up and scattered to the far corners (or pirate ships) of the universe; and Skits, a robot with an evolving intelligence and a serious crush on the Captain. But only long enough to figure out how Leo's dad fits into the war between the Aykari and Djarik, and then … he'll collect a ransom for Leo.
Captain Black is a pirate, after all. And Leo clearly isn't.
It all goes according to plan, until …it doesn't. Leo learns nothing, and I do mean nothing, is as it seems. Everything Leo thought he knew about his circumstances, his dad, his mom's death, the war between the Aykari and Djarik, even Captain Black…is all turned on its head.
And by the time Leo gets back to save his brother, the spaceship is just…gone. Vanished in the blackness of space.
I haven't ruined anything, I promise. Read and enjoy this wonderful sci-fi ride for middle grade readers! We're looking forward to book 2.