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'Artemis': A thrilling space heist from 'The Martian' author

Despite some minor flaws, Andy Weir's action-packed new caper proves a welcome return for fans of his best-selling debut novel "The Martian."

In 2011, Andy Weir self-published his debut novel, "The Martian," for 99 cents on Amazon's Kindle Store, where it caught the attention of a literary agent who bought and re-published it in 2014.

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Del Rey/Penguin Random House

It was an instant hit. Weir shot to fame overnight, with "The Martian" becoming a New York Times best-seller before being adapted into a critically acclaimed movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.

That's a tough act to follow. But after nearly eight years of waiting, fans of Weir's debut can rest easy. If you liked "The Martian," you're going to love "Artemis," a fast, engaging and at times funny lunar caper that will, despite a few minor flaws, pull you in from the first page with its unique setting, memorable characters and detailed scientific scrutiny.

Weir's action-packed second novel stars tough antihero Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara and offers a gratifyingly thrilling plot (two words: moon heist) while providing enough hard science that you'll finish the book feeling like an expert in metallurgy, lunar surface exploration and the limitations of EVA suits.

Weir has created a fictional universe that captures the strange idiosyncrasies of life on the moon, while painting a world that's familiar to us all through the strength of his characters and the depth of his research.  

Set in the near future, the novel is told from the perspective of Jazz, a young Saudi-born woman who works as a porter-cum-smuggler in the first and only city on the moon: Artemis.

Artemis is made up of five large spheres, known as "bubbles," which are half buried underground. Jazz, who's been living on the moon since age 6, rents a small room in Conrad, one of the poorest "bubbles" in the city.

To supplement her income, Jazz smuggles small items of contraband, such as liquor and cigars, to the limited number of Artemis residents who can afford the luxury. But it's a dangerous way to live, and getting caught could get her deported back to Earth.

So when local billionaire Trond Landvik offers Jazz a job that could buy her the life she's always dreamed of, how could she refuse?

CNET Book Club, Episode 3: "Artemis" by Andy Weir

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Of course, nothing's ever that simple, and Jazz soon finds herself spiraling into a conspiracy that gravely endangers both her and the residents of Artemis itself.

Jazz is an interesting character. She's more flawed than Mark Watney of "The Martian," often breaking the rules, underachieving and making the wrong choices. As a result, she's not as likable as Watney, but she's ultimately a more rounded, relatable character precisely because of her failings.

That said, there are undeniably a few echoes of Watney in Jazz. Like Watney, Jazz's temperament oozes with a familiar wise-cracking, know-it-all toughness you'll either love or hate.

A multicultural moon

It's refreshing to see Weir write from the perspective of a Saudi Arabian non-practicing Muslim woman, particularly as Watney of "The Martian" had so many similarities with the author's own identity (white, male, American, university educated), and for the most part, it works. In fact, the entire main cast of characters is wonderfully multicultural, with Hungarian, Vietnamese, Chinese and African nationalities all getting a look in. In Weir's imagined future, race is incidental, as is sexual orientation.

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For those who doubted Weir's talents as a sci-fi writer, the latest offering testifies to his skill within the genre. 

Del Rey/Penguin Random House

One of the disappointing aspects to this, however, is that Weir doesn't explore these nationalities and beliefs with much depth. Jazz could just as easily have been a British-born, non-practicing Buddhist for all the difference it made to the story.

As with "The Martian," "Artemis" will grab your attention from the start and keep you there for a good two-thirds of the book. But that final third may feel a little weak as the denouement fails to deliver quickly enough and Weir opts to flesh out the mechanics of specific details over further character development of Jazz, her friends and foes.

There are a few too many passages detailing the difficulties of welding in space, for example, or the intricacies of various airlock procedures. Annoyingly, these sometimes pop up during otherwise tense scenes that could have benefited from being shortened.

The last few chapters of "Artemis," however, eventually pick up the pace to match the urgency and excitement of the book's opening. We are returned to a more evenly mixed offering of the unstable melodramas of life buttressed and balanced by the certainties of science, a signature style Weir has become more adept at since "The Martian."  

Weir's prose is clear and exact, creating a thrilling immediacy to his work. He's a fundamentally precise writer, making the 300 pages a breeze to get through, but maybe leaving readers who appreciate extended metaphors or curlicues of drawn-out thought wanting more. This isn't great literature, but it's not trying to be. 

While the mainstream exposure to "hard science" has lost some of its freshness and novelty since the release and plateau of Weir's debut novel, "Artemis" is without doubt more action-packed than "The Martian." There's less suspense -- Jazz rarely feels in any danger -- but there's more scope and a larger world which, if anything, I wish Weir had spent more time exploring.

"Artemis," published by Del Rey Books in the UK and Crown Publishing Group in the US, will be available starting Nov. 14. 

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