Set hundreds of years in the future, A Pale Light in the Black imagines a universe where humans—and the branches of our military—have expanded beyond the solar system. Least among these branches is the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (NeoG), who are often derided by their fellow service members as being little more than “space cops.” A Pale Light in the Black follows the members of the NeoG Interceptor team Zuma’s Ghost. After a narrow defeat at the annual Boarding Games, the team has trained hard to redeem themselves. But that training is thrown into jeopardy when one of the team’s core members is unexpectedly promoted and reassigned. In his place they are given Maxine “Max” Carmichael, a young, awkward lieutenant with no experience in the Games. And when it becomes apparent that someone is targeting the team following a routine smuggling-busting mission, the Games aren’t the only thing Zuma’s Ghost will have to deal with.
There are plenty of TV shows and books out there for folks who want gritty, high-stakes action and intrigue. A Pale Light in the Black is not that. While it does have a mystery subplot with sabotage and murder, most of the book’s action covers the all-consuming Games. And while this might seem boring compared to alien invasions and intergalactic warfare, the Games make the perfect backdrop for the real focus of the book: the growing bond between the members of Zuma’s Ghost and their new lieutenant. At its core, A Pale Light in the Black is as much about Max learning to be more confident or Commander Rosa Martín Rivas worrying about her daughters as it is about the games themselves. Far from boring, Wagers’ focus on character growth and relationships is refreshing, providing a welcome palate cleanser from the grimdark dramas that have come to dominate much of the science fiction landscape.
But all this isn’t to say that the book isn’t exciting. Wagers has a gift for describing action, especially in the sequences surrounding the Boarding Games’ cage match-style fights, emphasizing the feel of a tooth coming loose after a particularly hard hit or the panic of knowing that you’re about to get hit hard. For readers who enjoyed Rocky or Top Gun as much as they did Star Trek, A Pale Light in the Black is a thrilling and heartwarming ride.