We discovered William Alexander's fantasy middle grade work, his medieval faire-setting A Festival of Ghosts and A Properly Unhaunted Place, a few years ago and read and reviewed them for my annual December, Review-a-Day Countdown to the Holiday.
I'd been meaning to read more of his middle grade books (there are a bunch!) and came across this sci-fi duology. I passed them along to my teen son, who also loved them.
They really do read like one book that got broken into two for middle-grade reader expectations of length. The first is 222 pages, and clearly ends unresolved. In fact, by the end, it feels like it's just getting started. While the second book is a bit longer, 264 pages, and wraps up everything started in book one. I'd recommend reading one right after the other with no pause between them.
Eleven-year-old Gabe Fuentes starts the summer before 6th grade on the neighborhood park playground, watching his younger siblings, and learns his best friend, Frankie, won't be able to spend it with him. Earlier, the boys set off a "rocket" made from a metal pipe, instead of cardboard (can anyone say pipe-bomb?), and after the damage, which Gabe took the blame for, Frankie's mom is shipping him off to his father's house in Califas.
At the same time, "The Envoy," a sort of purple blob that had been hanging out on an abandoned USSR-era clandestine moon base, has built a genuine rocket and launched itself back to Earth to select another Ambassador to speak for Terra, Earth.
It lands in the park lake and spots Gabe, choosing him to be the next Ambassador. When it shows itself to Gabe, he takes the news equanimously, listening to its explanation why it chose a child to be its plenipotentiary for Earth with a marked lack of panic or disbelief.
According to the Envoy, which speaks in Gabe's mother's voice, "Adults of most species find it more difficult to communicate with anyone outside their arbitrary circle -- or even recognize that anybody exists outside it. So ambassadors are always young. Always."
The Envoy has repurposed the duplex owner's washing machine to properly "entangle" Gabe's being and get him, while he dreams, to the Chancery, where ambassadors of all the existing species hang out and "play" and negotiate.
The Envoy spotted a fleet of ships in our solar system's asteroid belt, and Gabe has to go to the Chancery and figure out who may be stealing water from us (humans).
It's not long before someone tries to kill him, sucking the entanglement device (the repurposed washing machine) and the basement and first floor of the duplex through a black hole. At the same time, Gabe's father runs a stop sign. Or, at least the patrol officer who stops him claims he ran a stop sign, and once Gabe's dad admits he has no "papers" to be in the US legally, he's carted off to an ICE detention facility. Along with his mother. He learns his older sister, Lupe, was also not born in the US.
While both his parents are from Mexico, originally, Gabe's mother came legally on a visa while his father got caught trying to enter when he was very young and was deported, which means Gabe's dad will be shipped back to Mexico immediately, while his mother is given a hearing.
But there's another twist: Frankie's house used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Fuentes family's evacuation plan is to hide out there, in case of detection.
Gabe figures he can't hide out with his family in his best-friend's hideaway because someone's trying to kill him...and when he slips out, and a laser fires in the exact spot where he'd just been standing, he knows leaving is the only safe thing to do.
With the Envoy's help, and some very clever reasoning on his part, he'll physically out-run the assassins' attempts to kill him while walking a fine-line between our nearest galactic neighbors and a species known for its desire to exterminate all life in the galaxy, called the Outlast.
It's a great read, and in some ways is a very typical middle grade book. There's a scene when Gabe has to pee in space, zero-gravity, that had all of us laughing and kinda grossed-out at the same time.
A fun way to start your summer reading!
Nomad takes up where Ambassador leaves off, although it begins in the point of view of the Ambassador immediately before Gabe -- Nadia Kollontai. Her aunt and uncle are Jewish, but living in the USSR in 1974 and working on the super-secret moon base. She and the Envoy steal aboard the last N-1 rocket fired by the USSR to the moon and Zvezda Base to meet a rogue pilot and fly in the Machinae lanes.
The Outlast are in our arm of the galaxy and using the Machinae lanes to conquer world after world.
The Machinae are mentioned, briefly, in the first book as being the only species that can travel the vast expanses of the universe quickly, going from point to point. But they won't open their "lanes" to any species other than the Outlast, which has lately been using them to achieve Universe-wide domination and extermination of all life that isn't theirs.
Nadia leaves the base with the pilot, which explains how the poor purple Envoy got to the moon base in the first book, and Gabe's story picks up again.
SPOILER ALERT: This review will explain where the first book ended, so if you don't want to know how Ambassador ends, skip this part.
When we last left Gabe, he's figured out who's trying to kill him -- the Kaen -- and why -- because they don't want it known they're pirating our water from the asteroid belt, and because it looked like, in Gabe's ignorance of inter-galactic affairs, that he was conspiring with the Outlast, at least initially.
He's struck a bargain with the Kaen to stop trying to kill him, if they'll come get him on the moon base and take him back to Earth. Then they can continue outrunning the Outlast, which is headed in Earth's direction.
Ambassador Kaen (and this part's a bit confusing -- the Kaen are a "tribe" of nomad species, a conglomeration of many kinds, who have one unifying language, but that's about it, but Ambassador Kaen is a girl -- a human girl -- because in the Kaen's travels they've picked up people before, namely the Olmec, and incorporated them into their tribe) comes to pick up Gabe from Zvezda moon base.
He's shocked to learn she's human, but it turns out the Kaen (as a nomad tribe) are descendants of early Olmecs and Aztecs. He and Kaen confront the four Kaen captains who ordered Gabe's assassination. They convince them, together with Nadia, whose ventures into the Machinae lanes have left her near-blind but completely un-aged, to explore how the Outlast are using the Machinae lanes. Their only hope against the Outlast is to band together to figure out how to fly the Machinae lanes and convince the Machinae to shut down the lanes, if they want to save Earth and the Kaen fleet from the advancing Outlast.
At first, Gabe doesn't understand the Omegan, the Outlast Ambassador, is part of a hive-mind of sorts, where if one knows a thing, they all know a thing, and therefore all the Omegan knows or experiences, the rest of the Outlast know. Gabe endangers other species, just by drawing the attention of Omegan. But in the process of speaking to Omegan, Gabe learns somehow the Outlast's linked consciousness allows them to travel the lanes, because the Machinae recognize it.
Unfortunately, the Outlast are just as smart as Gabe and Kaen and even more determined to maintain their domination of the lanes and stop the humans.
The Kaen fulfill their agreement and return Gabe to Earth, but as he tries to rescue his father in Mexico, he gets caught trying to enter the US without any documentation and he ends up in an ICE detention facility as well.
After fighting his way out, he's got a solution in mind for his parents' immigration predicament -- one the Envoy is more than capable of executing, at Gabe's order.
Nadia and her rogue pilot give the lanes one more shot, and when the lanes come down, the Outlast go down -- and out of this universe -- with them.
This was a satisfying conclusion to the two-book series!