The Planet Thieves, by Dan Krokos, is the first in a new children’s science fiction series set in a far future during a half-century-old interplanetary war between humanity and a mysterious race known as the Tremist. Thirteen-year-old Mason Stark, his best friend Merrin, and his sometime rival Tom Renner, along with another dozen or so cadets, are on board the warship SS Egypt for what is supposed to be a routine mission when they are suddenly attacked by a Tremist ship. Soon, Mason and his fellow cadets are on their own, fighting to regain control of their ship, prevent the Tremist from getting hold of a supersecret weapon, and save the Earth.
The Planet Thieves starts out with a bang (almost literally, as the Egypt is buffeted by the Tremist’s surprise attack) and the pace continues at a breakneck speed with our characters being placed in one perilous situation after the other and the stakes continually getting raised (yes, even after the Earth itself is threatened). Twists abound as well, some involving our characters directly and others on a more global (or galactic) scale.
The pace is both a plus and a minus. The Planet Thieves is definitely a middle-grade book, and my guess is that many readers of that age will enjoy the piling on of one exciting scene atop another. After a few of these stake-raisings, though, one starts to wonder if we maybe haven’t gone one or two too far (I felt this especially for the final one, which felt a bit contrived). Plus, having all these action scenes follow one immediately upon the other doesn’t leave a lot of time or room for other aspects of storytelling. The background is very thin, leading to a lot of questions of the “Why didn’t… ” or “Why wouldn’t… ” or “But how… ” sort.
Characterization is also either thin, or if not thin, predictable and familiar. We’ve seen these characters before, and these interplays between these characters, and I can’t say any of their actions ever took me by surprise. The same is true with several of the major plot points (I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers). Of course, the degree to which one feels that predictability will vary based on one’s reading experience, so those younger middle-grade readers won’t find this anywhere near as problematic as I did. Nevertheless, one wishes for a bit more originality.
The book suffers a bit from some implausibility as well, both in terms of character and plot. And some issues with questions of logic, but again, it’s difficult to discuss those without ruining some of the book’s twists.
The prose is adequate, moving the reader along quickly and smoothly, but nothing really stands out in terms of style or language — no interesting turns of phrase, original metaphors, sharply vivid descriptions.
It’s a rare MG or YA book that can successfully cross over and appeal to adults, making that standard more than a little unfair. The fact that The Planet Thieves does not do so, then, is merely an observation rather than a criticism. Judged simply as a book for the younger crowd, I’d still call it only partially successful. Krokos does a good job crafting a sense of excitement from the very start and building upon then increasing that excitement throughout, but that energy is counterbalanced by problems of characterization, plausibility, and worldbuilding. If you know a young reader who is less concerned with those facets, one who just enjoys speeding through a lot of action scenes, this might be the book for them. Readers who want more than action, however, are probably best advised to look elsewhere.
Addendum: This is what my 11-yr-old son thought of it.
Overall I thought The Planet Thieves was an exciting story but not particularly well done. If you like lots of action and suspense, this is the book for you. Almost immediately their ship gets attacked by an alien spaceship. Fighting starts and persists through most of the book. However, to achieve that amount of action, lots was sacrificed.
I never really got a good sense of the characters’ personalities. They seemed mostly shallow and not fully drawn up. In addition, Tom and Mason started off hating each other but 3-5 pages later became best friends.
As well, several events did not seem possible. First, I am unable to buy the idea of a 13-year-old captain who was still in school and did not have nearly enough training or experience to be able to command a spaceship that is in the process of being attacked.
Another thing was that the idea of moving planets and plunking them down in the middle of a solar system with little effect on its former solar system or the new one is totally unreal.
Finally, there was a plot twist near the end that seemed way too drastic a change. It was totally unanticipated and had nothing to do with the rest of the book. It seemed so far flung that it was hard to buy the fact that people hadn’t realized it before.
At least the excitement made up for all those flaws. A bit.