K.B. Wagers’ A Pale Light in the Black promises a heartwarming tale of finding family in a military setting, complete with lots of sci-fi sporting competition. As someone who grew up reading sports novels as much as speculative fiction, I had to check it out, and, as promised, it was a lot of fun.
A Pale Light in the Black is set a few hundred years in the future and focuses on the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, part of a Near-Earth Orbital Guard (NeoG), a service branch heavily inspired by the U.S. Coast Guard. The three major perspective characters are Rosa, the commander, Jenks, an expert fighter and mechanical whiz, and Max, a fresh-faced lieutenant tasked with replacing Jenks’ brother Nika after his promotion. It’s a bit hard to give a faithful sketch of the plot, because the book really consists of four different stories intertwined together. First, it’s the story of Max finding a place to belong after growing up in the uncomfortable shadow of her famous parents. Second, it’s the story of NeoG’s attempt to win the Boarding Games—an annual competition between military branches—after falling agonizingly short the year before. Third, it’s the story of the crew of Zuma’s Ghost trying to solve the mystery of a ship appearing in the asteroid belt after being lost a century earlier. And fourth, it’s the story of Max, Jenks, and Rosa dealing with their own personal lives, grappling with toxic families or difficulty committing to relationships or the implications of religion on life.
While these storylines overlap heavily, they come off with varying degrees of success. The found family storyline tends to get singled out in positive reviews, and with good reason—Max’s integration into the crew of Zuma’s Ghost shows the characters at their best, with healthy relationships all around buttressing the characters as they face personal or external struggles. It’s uplifting and an absolute joy to read. The Games, on the other hand, don’t quite live up to the hype. The Zuma’s Ghost crew spends a disorienting amount of energy thinking about and preparing for the Games, to the point that it often feels more important than the lives they save during their day-to-day work. And yet the Games function in the novel mostly to support the strengthening relationships between Max and her new crew-mates. There are plenty of excellent character interactions during training scenes, but the climax is a letdown. This would work just fine if the Games hadn’t been built up as such an integral part of the story, but the setup promised sporting drama and mostly delivered wholesome moments of teammates supporting each other.
To anyone with genre experience, the mysterious ship in the asteroid belt feels like it should be drawing everyone’s attention, but it’s treated as the B-plot for much of the story. However, despite the relative lack of page time, it does deliver a complete arc with a solid, if unexceptional, resolution. And finally, in a microcosm of the book as a whole, the various personal struggles also come off with varying degrees of success. Jenks’ relationships really push forward her personal development and tightly connect to her overall character. Max’s, on the other hand, make sense for her character but feel a bit rushed, and Rosa’s feel almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the plot. It is possible that some of those threads will be picked up in a sequel, which may mitigate this criticism somewhat–this seems like the sort of book that could set the stage for a longer-running series, as the first book stands alone but introduces a lot of lovable characters that are likely to have more adventures in their NeoG careers.
Overall, this is a pretty wholesome story with some fun characters and some really healthy and uplifting relationships. The external conflicts take somewhat of a backseat and vary from good to anticlimactic, but they never rise to greatness. That said, the found family aspect really drives the story and makes it worth reading for that alone.
Recommend if you like: found family, talkin’ ‘bout practice.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.