Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“Look. You’ve stumbled into trouble beyond recall. You can’t run far enough away from this. I could give the lot of you more money to just walk away right now—more than you’ll see in your entire military career. You don’t know what you’re messing with.”
After a narrow loss at the 100th Boarding Games, Commander Rosa Martín Rivas and the crew of Zuma’s Ghost head back to Jupiter Station, where they are posted as part of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, or NeoG, the solar system’s Coast Guard. The crew is still smarting from their loss at the Boarding Games, when Nika, their lieutenant, receives a promotion which means they will lose their best swordsman in exchange for a new officer they are worried will be more status than substance. Maxine Carmichael is a brand new officer in the NeoG. After defying her influential family’s tradition of entering the Navy—which focuses on science and space exploration—Max is determined to make her own choices, and find her own place in the universe. But she will have a hard task proving herself and winning over the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, especially Nika’s adopted sister Jenks.
The crew is comprised of a variety of interesting characters headed by Commander Rosa, a member of the Earth-Bound Church who has received a dispensation from her pastor to serve off of God’s Green Earth—provided she doesn’t leave the solar system. She has left a wife and two daughters behind at home, along with her extremely orthodox mother. Her Master Chief is Ma Léi, a retired Navy officer who also happens to be a friend of Max’s father. Instead of taking his retirement, Ma signed up for second career in the NeoG, fully enjoying the long life and health afforded by LifeEx, the revolutionary medical treatment invented by Max’s great-great-grandfather, Alexander Carmichael. They are joined by master hacker Ensign Nell Zika aka Sapphi, and Petty Officer Uchida Tamashini aka Tamago (they/them), and of course, Petty Officer Altandai Khan, aka Jenks, the brash but undefeated fighter and brilliant mechanic who loves fiercely but doesn’t trust easily. For future installments, I’d like to see more development for Sapphi and Tamago, who get short shrift in this volume.
Although not positioned as the main character, a lot of the heart of this story revolves around Jenks. One of the highlights is the slowly warming relationship between Jenks and Max, as Max figures out how to be the kind of officer and teammate a firebrand like Jenks needs. Meanwhile, Jenks has a longstanding friends with benefits arrangement with Luis Armstrong, a widow who is stationed back on Earth with his two young sons. They are positioned on the edge of something more, if only Jenks could stop trying to run away. While not the protagonist as such, Jenks is definitely the life of the party, and the heart of the crew.
I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this story, which takes military sci-fi in an unexpected direction. Far from focusing on closely described battles and military expansionism, A Pale Light in the Dark is instead tightly focused on the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, their found family relationship, and their commitment to being the best crew in the service so that they can fulfill their mission to help those who become lost or stranded in space. The timeline of the story is built around the countdown to the next Boarding Games, which Rosa is desperate to have NeoG win for the first time. There is also a slow-burning mystery surrounding a long-missing freighter that the crew reclaims from a mysterious band of smugglers. After simmering throughout the novel, this plot thread comes to a slightly rushed conclusion, but I think there is room to further explore the ramifications later in the series. I’d love a deeper dive into the economics and morality of LifeEx, which must either be paid for, or earned through military service.
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