The Near Earth Orbital Guard handle search and rescue in space, a vital if underfunded mission delivered by small, tight crews determined to save lives. When rookie lieutenant Max Carmichael is unexpectedly assigned to the best Neo-G crew in the service, she has a lot to prove – to her new team, to her estranged family, but mostly to herself.
When A Pale Light In The Black first came out, I admit it didn’t catch my attention. I vaguely had it pegged as mil-adjacent SF – not my favourite – and there were a lot of other books clamouring for my time. I don’t recall seeing many reviews for it either, so listen up bookfriends: if – like me – you’ve been sleeping on this delightful slice of space drama, then get yourself down to your local bookshop and get aboard before the sequel comes out next month.
Welcome to the 25th century. Earth has recovered from the Collapse and begun reaching out to the stars, thanks largely to LifeX, a miracle anti-ageing and anti-radiation drug. With colonies on Mars, space stations orbiting Jupiter and regular traffic to other star systems, the Near Earth Orbital Guard does double duty cracking down on smugglers and saving those in peril in the black. It’s challenging, crucial work, but the powerful Carmichael family – manufacturers of LifeX – are appalled when their youngest daughter turns her nose up at the Navy to ‘slum it’ with the Neo-G.
The crew of Zuma’s Ghost – best in the Neo-G – are also perturbed. They’re losing their beloved second in command and gaining a rookie with a big name and limited experience. Sure, Carmichael comes highly commended, but they’re worried about more than day to day ops – they’re desperate to win the hotly-contended inter-service Boarding Games. They must reshape the team fast if they’re to beat the Navy… but first, they’ll need to survive uncovering a conspiracy that threatens everyone they love.
A Pale Light In The Black is a tasty stew of familiar SFnal tropes. What makes it stand out? Casting and tone. While there’s no shortage of admirable male characters, our primary POVs are women – the commander, a happily married lesbian nearing retirement; asexual Lieutenant Carmichael, burdened with parentally-inflicted insecurities; and Petty Officer Jenks, pansexual, polyamorous and always ready to start a fight.
With a supporting cast that includes trans, nonbinary and disabled characters, this is space opera as inclusive as anything penned by Becky Chambers, set in an egalitarian queernorm future with plenty of side-eye for toxic family and other asshattery. It is also set sufficiently post-apocalypse that while there’s room for politics and undue corporate influence (of course a Carmichael gets a plum post, however much she’s pissed off her parents) it feels resiliently upbeat. This is a fundamentally hopeful future – the world isn’t perfect, but it’s not villains all the way down either.
Given the context, you could be forgiven for assuming this is an all action thrill ride, but A Pale Light In The Black won me over with its focus on character and relationships. KB Wagers spends the first act on set-up, but bear with them: by the time I reached the preliminary rounds of the Boarding Games, I went from ‘yeah it’s fun while I’m reading it but I’m not compelled to pick it up when I’ve put it down’ to ‘tear this from my cold dead hands at your peril’. While I never felt the full crew of Zuma’s Ghost came into focus, I was deeply invested in whether Rosa, Max and Jenks could conquer their demons (give me adorable characters battling to acknowledge their worth, and let me yell myself hoarse until they accept they are capable and loved – hopefully while they’re still breathing).
But don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of action too. Once the plots come to the boil, there’s explosions and assassination attempts, along with space rescue missions, wrestling matches, swordsplay (guns are a terrible idea in space, kids) and a tense race against time in a secret underwater base. While the Boarding Games provide the chronology for the novel, those hoping for blow by blow accounts of every match will be disappointed; but I was secretly delighted in how they were used largely by the narrative to forge relationships and unpack baggage. The real drama is all happening in Jenks’s love life and Rosa and Max’s heads.
Shamelessly entertaining feel-good space opera, that leaves me hungry for more.
The sequel Hold Fast Through The Fire will be released on July 27th.