I reviewed The Resisters, the first book in a tween science fiction series by Eric Nylund, back in 2015 (have I really been blogging that long?) I gave that book a positive review for its quick-paced plot, dynamic action sequences, and intriguing (albeit somewhat derivative) world-building premise. Like many second books in a series, Sterling Squadron falls just a little bit short of its predecessor, but still packs a potent punch that’s sure to keep the attention of even the most reluctant tween readers.
In The Resisters, we met 12-year-old Ethan Blackwood, the big man on campus at his near-future elementary school. A few chapters into that book, Ethan learns that his entire world is a sham. Fifty years before, aliens had conquered Earth. Giant battle-ready insects patrol the skies to maintain order. When puberty hits, humans are transformed into mindless worker drones. Ethan is persuaded to join the rag-tag human resistance, consisting of adults living underground to avoid the mind-control waves, and pre-teen aviators who pilot retrofitted alien insect-fighters.
Sterling Squadron, book #2 in the series, finds the resistance in need of more pilots, and Ethan knows just where to get them – Sterling Reform School, the juvenile detention facility from Ethan’s former faux hometown. The kids who got sent to Sterling were brash, independent, and impulsive. They're rebels, and that’s just what the resistance needs. Ethan leads a small group of pilot-friends behind enemy lines to stage a break-out at Sterling, and recruit the escapees for the human cause. With a major alien attack on the horizon, there’s not much time to train the new pilots. It’s up to Ethan to lead his team of inexperienced ne’er-do-wells into the battle to save humanity.
Zip, zoom, POW! There’s enough action here for a couple of tween novels. However, where Sterling Squadron excels in plot, it falters on character and emotion. Ethan’s the only character we really get to know, and he doesn’t change or grow in the story. In the first book, Ethan had to process his new world/reality in the midst of combat. By the time Sterling Squadron rolls around, Ethan’s role is just a little too clear, especially for a 12-year-old. And there are several important emotional scenes in Sterling Squadron that come across as mundane and listless. (Minor spoiler alert) While staging the reform school break-out, Ethan finds his long-lost sister. Sure, there’s not a lot of time for a tearful reunion, but the characters display almost no emotion. In another scene Ethan has to leave behind his injured friend to save the group. Once again – too little angst and indecision. And the book's biggest reveal – that the alien insects are actually piloted by brainwashed humans – is glossed over so quickly that some readers might miss it. Nylund is a skilled writer, and I’m not sure why he ignores the emotional aspect of his characters. Perhaps he underestimates the sophistication of the tween reading audience.
And maybe that's okay. Giant tech-infused death-ray-shooting wasps, piloted by kids who need to save the world – what more can you ask for? Without the luxury of revealing the world-shifting premise of the first book, Sterling Squadron gives us a high-concept, high-interest shoot-‘em-up that will keep readers up past their bedtimes. Complex emotional content and character develop would make Sterling Squadron a great tween novel. But as it is, it’s very good.
Sterling Squadron will hold the interest of demanding tween readers, and is a must-read for fans of the first book. Buy copies for your library media center and classroom library, and make sure your readers know they should read The Resisters first to fully understand the Sterling Squadron’s post-alien-invasion world.