A hundred years into the future, humanity has colonised the solar system, but all the habitats and space stations are still dependent on regular resupply from Earth. The Fleet operates several search and rescue ships which ply the space lanes on a regular schedule to lend assistance to the vast space freighters without which the colonies are cut off. Captain Elissa Shann and her crew of twenty-five man the Khidr, inbound to Phobos when they pick up a distress signal from the freighter Hercules.
Things turn critical even before they arrive at the rendezvous with the freighter, with a crew member murdered. Uneasy with the knowledge she has a killer aboard, Shann is unprepared to be attacked by a ship nobody on the Khidr had any idea was present - a ship that doesn’t exist on any spaceship register, something that’s not supposed to be possible. Nobody has ever even fought a battle in space; the Khidr’s laser and torpedoes are meant for fending off stray asteroids, not attacking ships! But Shann’s no quitter. Born without legs, she went into space because zero-g meant her disability actually became an asset. She’s getting out alive, and she’s bringing as many of her people with her as she can. No matter what it takes.
There are a lot of threads here that don’t get tied off, starting from the mystery of the strange sounds heard by Apollo 10 astronauts back in the early days of space exploration. Shann and her crew find - and have to abandon - several artifacts they can’t identify, and there are at least two players on the board whose backers are unidentified, so there’s a much bigger game at play they don’t fully understand. Yes, there’s a fairly satisfying ending given here with Shann and (a few of) her crew winning the day and headed for safety (content warnings for lots of deaths, some fairly gruesome, and serious injuries). It does seem obvious that this is the first of a series; to me it has echoes of David Weber’s fabulous Honor Harrington series. I’m not sure if it will go that long, but there’s at least a trilogy here, and I’d love to read more of it.
Shann as a heroine with a disability who is absolutely not defined by it - at one point it even works for her because she requires less oxygen than other crewmembers who have complete bodies to fuel - is really great to read. She’s also not the only one; talented, ambitious young office Johansson is missing a hand, though she uses a prosthetic. Shann uses prosthetic legs under sufferance and avoids gravity unless she must.
The story is told in first person and primarily in Shann’s head, though we also get to see the perspective of others at different times, which helps to make the crew feel ‘real’ and not just a bunch of redshirts. April Johansson is brilliant and fiercely ambitious, at the beginning thinking only of how to impress her captain, her eyes always on climbing the Fleet rank ladder, but by the end, she is ready to sacrifice herself to give the rest of the crew a chance at survival. Engineer Sellis is a likable enough sort, a skilled repair technician… with a serious gambling problem and debts across the solar system which leave him vulnerable to blackmail.
While there’s a mystery to solve and an unexpected battle to fight, it’s the characters who make this story so intriguing, led by Shann. I thought she was a fascinating heroine and I ended the book really wanting to know how things turned out for her, wondering what reception she’d get from Fleet. A well-written page-turner, the fact that I’d have happily gone straight out and bought the second book in the series if it was available mean this deserves nothing less than five stars.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.