Review: A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK by K.B. Wagers

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Page Count: 417
Release Date: March 3rd, 2020
Series: NEOG, Book 1
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars – Liked It!

Note: I was provided a free ARC in return for my fair and honest review.

Maxine Carmichael is the newest member of Zuma’s Ghost, a ship in the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (NeoG).  NeoG is a military branch of Earth dedicated to patrolling the black, aiding ships in distress and arresting smugglers and pirates. As if Max didn’t have her hands full already trying to fit in with a new crew, she’s got the added pressure of making sure she’s an asset for the annual Boarding Games, a competition among the military branches that NeoG missed winning last year by three whole points. But in between the training and the rescuing, Max and her crewmates have begun to realize that there is something fishy happening in the galaxy.  People who were reported dead a century ago are being spotted, and risky malfunctions turn out to be sabotage.  If Zuma’s Ghost doesn’t figure out soon why someone wants them dead, they might not come back from their next mission.

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A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK is a slice of life space adventure set amongst a group of people whose literal life mission is to help people.  In short, its all the ingredients that make up my perfect comfort read.  For better or worse, PALE LIGHT has a little more of a “day in the life” feel than the action-driven plots of Wagers’ other books.  There are definitely bursts of fighting and tension, but if you’re looking for ship-to-ship battles and massive explosions on the regular, you won’t find that here.

What you WILL find, especially in the first half of the book, is a series of rescues and missions conducted by Zuma’s Ghost, interspersed with characters going about their lives as they wait for the next distress call.  There are three third-person perspectives: new crew member Max, Commander Rosa Martín, and Jenks, a fellow crew member and sister of Zuma’s Ghost’s previous lieutenant who was promoted to his own squad.  In between evacuating people from stations with critical reactor leaks, these women deal with family drama, political beefs, love lives and more, all while strategizing for the Boarding Games looming in the future.  Like the best space dramas, you really begin to feel like you’re sitting down amongst a family, and I enjoyed the personal moments as much as the rescues.

Where I wish A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK had succeeded a little more is in escalating the tension in the back half of the book.  The Boarding Games and the mystery Zuma’s Ghost is investigating are less interwoven storylines than alternating storylines.  You’re very frequently on one track or the other.  It never really felt like we were reaching a true crisis point, despite there being a final showdown between Zuma’s Ghost and the people they’re hunting.  Even the critical moment of either winning or losing the Boarding Games happens off screen, a beat that felt slightly odd given that the whole focus of the book revolves around that event. Nevertheless, PALE LIGHT starts at and maintains a comfortable cruising speed that kept things moving, even if I wish that it had kicked things into a higher gear at the end.

If you’re looking for a hopeful, feel-good sci-fi tale with a splash of action, A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK is the book for you.  It doesn’t imagine a perfect future, but it certainly imagines a better one.  Sexism is non-existent and LGBTQ+ people are out in full force.  Our heroes aren’t here to make war, they’re here to help, but if you put one of their own in danger, they will rip you apart without hesitation.   I’m definitely looking forward to future rides with the crew of Zuma’s Ghost!

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