A who-done-it sits at the center of K. B. Wagers’s sci-fi adventure novel “A Pale Light in the Black” (Harper Voyager). A new lieutenant joins the crew of an elite space Coast Guard ship—technically the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—that’s investigating a smuggling ring in between competing in the Boarding Games, face-offs among military branches involving fighting, hacking, piloting and raiding.
The lieutenant is Maxine “Max” Carmichael. She’s basically a warrior princess—child of space Navy admirals and heir to massive corporation which has held a generations-long monopoly on a fountain-of-youth medicine. The crew is trying to figure out who is behind the smugglers, who may be trying to end the family business’ monopoly. Frankly, it’s hard to get too worked up about that.
Also, I’m not sure about this society Wagers has imagined with basically nothing existing beyond a controlling biotech monopoly, rival military branches, smugglers and an occasional rich dude on his space yacht.
“A Pale Light in the Black” follows in the footsteps of Wagers’s her “Indranan War” trilogy, which began with her 2016 book “Behind the Throne.” But it takes 80 or 100 pages to really get moving. Once it does it’s a rollicking adventure of close shaves, mysterious bodies turning up, sabotaged gear, and the elaborate rituals of the military sports.
Max works to fit into the ship’s crew, an entertaining collection of stock types—a level-headed captain missing her family back home, the wise old pilot who has known Max since she was a wee lass, the petty officer who grew up on the streets and wants to either brawl or bed everyone she meets, or both. In between the deering-do, Wagers digs into family and relationship drama as well as the characters’ various insecurities.
All this makes the middle of the book fun, but the end disappoints. Eventually the crew discovers that the prospective monopoly-busters are masterminded by a bad James Bond villain with the craftiness of a bad Scooby-Doo villain. Also, what military team do you think wins the Boarding Games? Expect a sequel.
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.