All right, Bonadonna, come and claim your five stars...

I wasn't going to award THREE AGAINST THE STARS five stars. I hate handing out the maximum plaudits. I'd rather be a hard grader. Throwing around the five***** kudos tends to cheapen the currency. Like declaring everything that didn't suck "awesome." Makes the writer think he's arrived at some sort of arbitrary perfection. That's not a healthy sort of complacence to foster.

And the fact is that THREE AGAINST THE STARS is a sterling example of what was known, in the heyday of pulp fiction, as "space opera"---a time-honored sub-genre that hasn't worn well on the fickle creature that I've become, in my present reading tastes. I tend to cleave to other fantasy sub-genres and find some of the idioms of space opera (and traditional pulp narrative) borderline annoying. In general, I'll take a little less zap-gun justice and a little more nasty ALIEN predation (call me xenophilic).

But the fact is that it's probably most fair to judge a work of fiction at least partially on its intent, apart from whatever inherent literary merits or shortcomings it may contain. So on that basis I'll grit my teeth and concede Bonadonna his five-star rating for a rip-roaring space adventure well launched. You want well-executed intergalactic adventure---THIS is it, first-person-shooter laser-blasters. (OK, let's come clean: He IS a colleague who tends to be generous when reviewing my stuff, so let's conscientiously subtract 1/2* for cronyism.)

THREE AGAINST THE STARS is a FTL-paced, tazer-blasting tale of the Space Marines that manages to render savvy commentary on colonialism, ethnic-cleansing, interstellar (and interspecies) politics, loyalty and universal brotherhood, while serving up a crackling-good narrative that cross-pollinates the best of STAR WARS' blaster-battles with the wit, humanity and character charm of the immortal GUNGA DIN, as well as the unswerving camaraderie of THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

The book hurtles along from its opening scene of monstrous encounter to the inevitable bravura battle at its climax, hardly pausing to refill its air tanks. We're left to watch the planetary dust settle in the exotic light of multiple moons; to somberly ponder the fates of a handful of memorably tough yet compassionate hard-ass men and women, the survivors of a future fraught with hard new frontiers; to hope for the continued adventures of the Space Marines.

What struck me, again and again, in reading this book was the confident hand Bonadonna shows in controlling his material, parsing out precisely the right detail that grounds us in the scene. The technical jargon is minimal, always understandable in the context. Transitions are smooth, and suspense is maintained with a deft touch. A very fine performance by a writer who is rounding into the top of his game.

This sub-genre of fantasy once was the province of great storytellers like E.E. "Doc" Smith, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Andre Norton and others. The format went out of fashion with the advent of the "new-skepticism" and heightened awareness of science and technology. Its yearning heart, though, never died---that passion in readers to experience planet-hopping adventure on exotic worlds that can only be dreamed of.

Joe Bonadonna openly avows respect and honor for those masters of space opera who preceded him. Now, like his irrepressible Space Marines, his performance warrants that he step up in rank to join their number. In retrospect, I suppose I'd be harder on those venerable masters. They wrote during a time when there were more markets in which to publish their tales---more incentive to excel. So I'd give a lot of what was considered their best work no better than FOUR stars.

And that gives THREE AGAINST THE STARS a half-star booster rocket above most of them.

Take the ride. I recommend it. Dramamine is optional but a well-charged phase-pistol---? I wouldn't open the book without it.