Every family has issues. Most can’t blame them on extraterrestrials.
When Jakob Shao returns to Earth fifteen years after he was abducted by aliens, he’ll have to locate a device which could save not just the world, but the universe. Who better to help him than his estranged family and the two sisters whose lives were upended by his sudden disappearance?
Light Years From Home lets alien abductions and universe-saving antics take a back seat to what’s really important — family. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, what would you be more scared to do: battle intergalactic space monsters or confess something embarrassing to your parents? The lens this book is written through really opened my eyes to a type of grounded sci-fi that’s unlike anything else out there, and I loved it.
Mike Chen is building quite the repertoire when it comes to character-driven narratives. He already mastered intricate and complex family dynamics in the way he approached the father-daughter relationship in his excellent time-travel debut, Here And Now And Then. This time, he’s taking on the minefield that is ‘siblings.’
One brother and two sisters. Estranged. Separated by light years. That’s the spine that holds this all together. There’s a tenderness and honesty about the character dynamics which makes the story absolutely magnetic. The relationships between the three main characters are relatable and poignant, stirring empathy as viewpoints shift from one to the other.
Jakob is a cocky guy who blagged his way through school, and was drifting to nowhere before an intergalactic alien war disciplined him with purpose. And now he’s back, not as a soldier, but as a brother, facing up to the memory of his disappointments.
Kass is Jakob’s twin sister — a clinical psychologist who spends her time playing videogames with her ex-husband in cyberspace, and doing her best to provide care for her elderly mother. There’s a touching portrait of dementia painted in Kass’s interactions with her Mom which moved me in unexpected ways.
Evie is the youngest, and she made a promise to her Dad that she would find her disappeared brother, which sends her on a quest to become a UFO and alien-hunting specialist. She’s wide-eyed and a lot of fun, bouncing through life with blue hair and a nerdy fascination with weather readings.
I grew to love these characters. This family. They each need fixing in their own way, and to do that, they need each other.
One of the biggest strengths of the story is the non-linear way that it unfolds. In pretty much every chapter, the plot progresses in two directions — continuing forwards in an increasingly complicated web of “is Jakob really a space-hero, or is he seriously delusional?” as well as backwards in flashes to the previous fifteen years and the damage caused by Jakob’s apparent abduction. The back and forth works incredibly well to enhance the gravity of each moment, and keep the focus on what the book is all about — a family in crisis who are trying to heal.
There’s so much to admire here. It’s funny, poignant, moving, rewarding, observant, intriguing, and ultimately, sweet. For a book that has “home” in the title, it absolutely delivers all the feels you’d hope for. The pacing is flawless. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. The chapters are the perfect length for binge-reading. If you manage to find a way to not fly through this book, will you let me know how you did it? Because I’d like to know how that’s scientifically possible.
Overall, Light Years From Home is out of this world, but not in the way you might expect. It’s a rich exploration of what it means to be a family, of overcoming the impossible together, and how necessary we are to one another, whether we realise it or not. Once you’ve finished reading, then you’d better be prepared to boldly go where you may never have gone before — straight up to your brother or sister to hug them a little too tightly.