Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: NeoG #1
Published by Harper Voyager on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
The rollicking first entry in a unique science fiction series that introduces the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—NeoG—a military force patrolling and protecting space inspired by the real-life mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.
For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling. Their best swordsman has been transferred, and a new lieutenant has been assigned in his place.
Maxine Carmichael is trying to carve a place in the world on her own—away from the pressure and influence of her powerful family. The last thing she wants is to cause trouble at her command on Jupiter Station. With her new team in turmoil, Max must overcome her self-doubt and win their trust if she’s going to succeed. Failing is not an option—and would only prove her parents right.
But Max and the team must learn to work together quickly. A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them.
Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.
Military SF, done right, is one of the best things to read if you are looking for serious “competence porn”, and A Pale Light in the Black is definitely military SF done very, very right.
There have been plenty of milSF stories featuring various branches of the service taken into space. Often those services model the space forces around either the Navy, as in Honor Harrington, or the marines, like Torin Kerr. The concept of a space Army seems like a bit of an oxymoron, as the Army has to get out of space and onto some ground in order to really be something called an Army. And a space Air Force feels redundant, even though there’s no atmosphere in space.
On the other hand, Stargate Command was run by the U.S. Air Force, so it IS possible after a fashion.
But the one service that has been left out of the equation – until the glorious now – is the Coast Guard. Countries have coasts. Earth as a whole doesn’t exactly have a “coast”, but it does have a stretch of territory that it defends and where its laws, rules and regulations hold sway.
Or at least it will in the future, if we ever do manage to get into space for real. And it certainly does in A Pale Light in the Black. Because that’s where this story, and the series that will follow (hopefully really, really SOON) is set among the often looked down upon members of this future’s equivalent of a space Coast Guard, the NeoG.
The Near-Earth Orbital Guard patrols the relatively nearby space where Earth holds sway. Their duty is to protect the “pale light in the black” that is Earth and her colonial interests. Their job is critical, but it isn’t exactly glorious or sexy. The NeoG is underfunded, undermanned, underequipped and underestimated in the Boarding Games that serve as a combination of mass entertainment, wargame training and inter-military rivalry, scorekeeping and grudge-matching, with a plenty of individual service team-building.
The story, and the audience, follow one Lieutenant Maxine Carmichael. Max graduated first in her NeoG Academy class, but has been stationed on Earth ever since, due to the machinations of her rich and powerful family. A family that may have all-but-disowned and abandoned her on the day that she announced she was joining the NeoG instead of either the more prestigious Navy, like her parents and older brother, or the family firm, like her sister.
They abandoned her in the hopes that she would fall back into their cold and distant arms and toe the family line. Instead, she excelled at the career that she had chosen. But then, she never did fit in with the rest of the family.
Still, they pulled strings to keep her stationed safely on Earth – whether that’s what she wanted or not. Then again, what Max wanted seems to have never mattered a damn to her family. When she finally had enough, she applied to be an Interceptor, part of one of the close-knit crews that patrolled the space lanes for contraband, pirates, and general bad actors of all types. There are NO interceptors serving on Earth, so she finally has her posting out in the black as the story opens.
Having achieved her goals does not mean that she isn’t carrying all the emotional baggage her parents loaded her down with and that she doesn’t still have all the buttons they installed. Max has the basics to do her job and do it well, but she has a long way to go to learn how to become a part of a team that treats all its members like family.
Because she has no good experiences of family. At all.
A Pale Light in the Black is Max’s story as she becomes part of the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, finds her place in the NeoG and in the found family that is her ship and crew. And figures out just how to help her team win this year’s Boarding Games.
Meanwhile, Max, her crew, her friends and even her entire branch of the service are investigating an age-old grudge between her family firm and the rivals that everyone believed were long dead. A grudge that could destroy, not just her family, but take half the human population along with it.
No pressure. Compared to that, the Boarding Games are a piece of cake!
Escape Rating A++: I realize that I’m basically squeeing all over the page here. I absolutely loved this book. And there’s enough to unpack to keep me busy until the next book in the series comes out.
First, the worldbuilding here is awesome. Also in a peculiar way a bit scary, because this isn’t a direct progression from our now until then. Instead, we are now in the pre-Collapse world, and our right now is pretty much the “last good time” for a long time. The Collapse Wars are coming, and after that, in about 400 years or so, we reach the time period of the story. “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.”
I love the way that the author demonstrates that we as a species have also left a whole lot of crap behind on that way between here and there. Not by making a big deal about it, but by showing that things are different through the lack of so much stupid fuss in everyday life. We are capable of better as a species, we just seem to need very hard lessons to reach that point.
Second, this is great competence porn. By that I mean that everyone, not just our hero but everyone in NeoG, is seen to be doing their jobs well all the time. Even the evil people are good at what they do, just that what they do is terrible. But it is terrific to watch and especially identify with a whole lot of folks who are not just dedicated to their jobs but where the ability to do the job well is expected. Heroism is extra. It was also different to see such good competence porn in a story that does not deal with basic training of any kind.
Not that Max doesn’t have plenty to learn, but we don’t follow her going through the Academy. Instead, we follow her as she learns to let down her emotional guards, to let herself accept and be accepted, to figure out what she’s good at and let herself internalize that she has skills and is good enough in all sorts of ways. Her doubts and fears make her human – and they make her easy to identify with and especially empathize with. We all have a little impostor syndrome in us, after all.
Max, however, is actually way beyond good enough, but that’s part of the lesson she needs to learn.
Max’s first year on Zuma’s Ghost, and the timetable for the Boarding Games provide the structure for the story. At the same time, the ghosts that Max has to deal with, the wounds that she needs to heal from, were all inflicted by her family.
And the case that Zuma’s Ghost has to solve, the smugglers and pirates that they have to catch, also deal with her family. The way that Max goes from feeling caught in the middle to knowing exactly where she stands is a big part of her journey. A journey that in many ways reminds me of the character of Ky Vatta in the Vatta’s War and Vatta’s Peace series(es). Ky has to deal with many of the same conflicts between military duty and family obligations. If you like Ky you’ll love Max and vice-versa.
I can’t wait to see where Max – and Zuma’s Ghost – go next!