A Tunnel in the Sky

Like templetongate.net on Facebook  Follow @templetongate on Twitter
-Site Search

NeoG Series
by K. B. Wagers

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 11, 2023
Edits and Addenda on June 16 & 23

A Pale Light in the Black / Hold Fast Through the Fire / The Ghosts of Trappist

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

The blurb on the front of the hardcover, from Max Gladstone, reads: "If The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet had more kickboxing matches and death-defying space rescues, this would be the book." The other title referenced is the first in Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, and it is an appropriate comparison. The camaraderie between the crew of the NeoG Interceptor Zuma's Ghost is as important to the story as their adventures. NeoG stands for the Near Earth Orbital Guard, a military organization equivalent to our Coast Guard. However, by the 25th Century the territory they patrol and protect has expanded beyond Earth to wherever humanity has spread throughout the solar system, and beyond. The kickboxing comes in when the crew trains for and participates in the yearly Preliminaries, and then the full Boarding Games. I wish there had been less of the Games, and more of the death-defying space rescues, but they were used as a way to get to know the individuals, the various other groups that participated, as well as an overall glimpse into a world that had recovered from the Collapse, which had occurred in either the late 21st Century, or early 22nd.

The book opens in the year 2435, "One Day Post-Boarding Games," which the NeoG team had lost by three points. Subsequent chapters are headed with "T-Minus [however many months or days] until Prelim (or Boarding Games)." The CHN (Coalition of Human Nations) Navy had dominated the Games for many years, with NeoG nipping at their heels, the Marines and Army far behind in the stats. Kickboxing is only one of the events. Others include piloting and navigation, computer hacking, with the final Game being one kept secret until the end, but usually involving covert operations to rescue personnel or retrieve stolen intel. Each crew competes on its own in the Preliminaries, but the top two from each service combine their talents in the Boarding Games. Thus we get to know people from other NeoG crews, as well as some from the Navy. A few weeks following the latest Games, Lieutenant Maxine "Max" Carmichael joins the Zuma's Ghost crew. She came from a very privileged background, but one from which she had been trying to extricate herself for a long time. Her great-grandfather had discovered a serum for life extension, one needed to both repopulate the Earth post-Collapse, and with its additional properties of rapid healing and reduced risk from radiation, bolstered humanity's space exploration. Carmichaels were expected to find a place within the LifeEx Corporation, or else join the CHNN, with NeoG considered several significant rungs below them in stature.

Similar to other SF tales over the years, the first extra-solar expeditions were accomplished with ships traveling a small percentage of light speed, with crew and passengers in suspended animation. Those were superceded by the discovery of wormhole technologies. It's possible there are other colonies, but the only one mentioned here is in the Trappist-1 system. The main reason I would have liked less of the Games is the major mystery that begins early in the book, with Zuma's Ghost coming across a disabled ship from pre-wormhole days. There is a crew of five, but no sign of what should have been hundreds of cold sleep passengers. Because of this mystery, my blurb for the book would have been "a mash-up of Wayfarers and The Expanse." NeoG HQ and its Intelligence branch considers their part in the investigation over once those five are arrested and transferred to the CHNN, but then those five die in a fire in the Navy ship's brig. Suspicions arise concerning LifeEx's connection, which leads to Max having to confront several of her family to whom she had not spoken for several years. That investigation deserved more time than it was given, and every time they were concentrating on the Games I was thinking, if the cream of the crop of the military services are preoccupied with the Games, doesn't that let the bad guys have more time to do their smuggling/pirating? I'm not sure if every thing was resolved about the case, we may learn more if any of the guilty parties escaped, but I've already started the second book which presents another mystery.

I read this in hardcover borrowed from my library. I got the second one in ebook through Cloud Library. It includes a Cast of Characters, which the first print book did not, instead you had to try to remember everyone's name (and nickname), and their position and relative importance to the story, all through exposition and context. The Commander of Zuma's Ghost was Rosa Marie Martín Rivas (she/her). Max joined the crew due to the departure of Nika Vagin (he/him), reassigned to Trappist-1e. The ship's pilot was Master Chief Ma Lei (he/him), a long-time friend of the Carmichaels, retired from CHNN before joining NeoG. Now we get to the ones with nicknames, which in some cases weren't intuitive given their real names: Ensign Nell "Sapphi" Zika (she/her); Petty Officer Uchida "Tamago" Tamashini (they/them); Petty Officer Altandai "Jenks" Khan (she/her). Jenks is Nika's adopted sister, rescued from the streets of Krasnodar after being abandoned by her mother. Jenks is obsessed with pre-Collapse history, including a lot of its pop culture. If I was a gamer I might have figured out her nickname before it was explained about halfway through.

Anyone reading this review who gets upset about alternate pronouns and gender identities/sexual orientation had best stop reading this, and avoid the book. Those of us who celebrate the glorious diversity of human expressions can revel in the differences between characters, even those we may not understand, but at least we can be sympathetic allies. Rosa is lesbian, married with two children, one each born by her and her wife. Nika is hetero, Max is asexual, Sapphi is either lesbian or bisexual, Jenks is bi/poly (maybe pan?). Not sure about Tamago, maybe ace, or maybe just shy about revealing anything about their personal self. Supporting characters are a mixture of all of the above. No matter how they identify, the crew of Zuma's Ghost are most definitely family, even if that takes a while with a new member like Max. Jenks is their best kickboxer, and her volatile temper has her perpetually wanting to punch people in the face, especially when she learns Nika has been injured on Trappist. The transformation of her initial resentment towards Max to one of close friendship is one of the better things. Max has found a home, finally, one she can be comfortable in, rather than fearful of. In spite of my slightly negative comments above about the Games, I do recommend this, and I'm looking forward to telling you about the second book soon.


*     *     *

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted June 16, 2023
Less time spent covering or talking about the Games here, but it was explained that they were essentially an extension of the normal training procedures every service conducted to make them better at their jobs. NeoG's job was usually combatting piracy and smuggling, and rescuing victims of both. Many people expect Zuma's Ghost to not participate in the next Preliminaries due to transfers or retirements. The new commander is Nika Vagin, returned from Trappist, replacing Rosa Martín Rivas. Jenks has been promoted to Chief Petty Officer, and they also have a new pilot, Spacer Chae Ho-ki (they/them), replacing the departed Master Chief Ma Lei. Nika's injuries on Trappist resulted in the amputation of his right arm, but he is getting used to his prosthetic. Something I didn't mention above is that one of NeoG's frequently used weapons is the sword, and knives as backup, probably because projectile weapons were too risky to be used inside a space ship. Nika had been NeoG's top sword fighter in the Games, which of course used only practice swords, similar to fencing foils. I had assumed the explosion on Trappist that took his arm was related to the first book's mystery, but it's another that the second book focuses on. It's not a new mystery, NeoG Intelligence and CHNN had been tracking it for several years, Nika's transfer to Trappist being part of that investigation.

I'm sure you've heard it said that Military Intelligence is an oxymoron. They may be smart, but blind obedience to their protocols and compartmentilization of information leads to negative results on occasion. Even though Nika has returned to NeoG he is still involved in the same mission he was part of on Trappist, unable to be truthful and forthcoming to the rest of his crew concerning his orders. It's not that he doesn't want to tell them, since he cares for them and wants to keep them safe, but he is constrained by orders from Intel not to. That results in them going into confrontations without adequate preparations. It also doesn't help that new pilot Chae is a suspect in the investigation, Nika and Intel fully cognizant of that fact, hoping Chae isn't aware, that they may slip up and lead them to who is controlling them. There is still an Expanse vibe, as well as things that reminded me of a story arc on Babylon 5. The culprits want suspicions to be directed towards the Free Mars group and the Trappist Liberation Force, and they're willing to bring everyone to the brink of war to distract from their criminal enterprises. Also, people in the highest echelons of government and industry are pulling the strings. The cover image for this book shows Max and Nika as they are testing a new space helmet, witnessing an explosion on Jupiter station.

Amongst all the intrigue and perilous confrontations, there is still a strong emphasis on character. All of Zuma's Ghost are torn between their previous admiration and devotion to Nika, to resentment when they learn the truth, and at times a few of them had begun suspecting Nika of being a turncoat. The path back to re-earning their trust is not an easy one, especially because several of their comrades die, others are severely injured. Jenks has to face life without two people she had come to love, as well as a NeoG Admiral who had been as close to a father figure as she ever had. It was actually easier for most of them to forgive Chae before Nika, since it was learned their actions were all about protecting their family and friends, who had been threatened by the bad guys if Chae stopped feeding them information. In the end, all the NeoG Interceptor crews, Intelligence, and CHNN finally get on the same page, but it is a plan concocted by Max that brings the bad guys down, with very timely backup by Chae to capture one of the ringleaders. As with the first book, I'm not sure if every thread of the mystery is wrapped up, and the trilogy's conclusion is about yet another situation. I have an advance review copy of it, which I started last night, and I'll update this page as soon as I can. Again, recommended, for the mysteries as well as the personal character interactions.


*     *     *

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted June 23, 2023
I received an advance digital review copy of the conclusion(?) of the NeoG series from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. It will be published next week, June 27. The reason for the question mark is there are hints of possible future events, and if Wagers ever revisits NeoG I will want to read it. For quite a ways through this book the notion there was a supernatural element was strong, with the prospect of real ghosts, but knowing it is SF I was continually intrigued with the mystery, desperate to find out the truth.

There are multiple layers to the story. Both military and freight ships are going missing within the Trappist system, but others that had been missing for years reappear with no crew aboard, alive or dead, and no indication of where they had been or what disabled them. On one of those recovered ships was found a message scrawled on a wall; Get Out! Trauma from the bombings on Jupiter Station in the second book still haunt many, including Sapphi who had died, for a few minutes at least. Commander D’Arcy Montaglione of the NeoG Interceptor Dread Treasure is almost incapacitated by grief, due to the death of one of his crew, as well as the betrayal by another he had known for nearly twenty years. It also doesn't help that he has a fractious history with one of his new crewmembers, when he was part of the Free Mars movement, and she was with CHNN. Max's feud with her family continues, but she finally realizes that is primarily her parents' doing, and she gains support from siblings and extended family.

Sapphi reunites with a former lover, whom she doesn't recognize initially, since they had transitioned after their breakup. The fact that Yasu works in the AI research division of Danao Dynamics, manufacturer of the DD communication chips implanted in almost everyone, not just military, and those chips had been compromised by the terrorist attack on Jupiter Station, puts him high on a suspect list. Speaking of AI, there is something I haven't mentioned until now. Jenks, in addition to being NeoG's top Games fighter, is also a master mechanic. She had found a robot dog in a scrap heap, repaired it, and it is now her pet Doge (he/him). Doge is possibly the last remaining ROVER AI (Robotic Optics Vehicular and Extra-Vehicular Reconnaissance). He may resemble Boston Dynamics BigDog or SpotMini, but with a more realistic dog head, but there were times I couldn't help thinking of K9 from Doctor Who. I know that's wrong, since Doge had articulated legs, but still that image persisted. Doge is Jenks's personal pet, not the property of NeoG, but it is possible if others find out about his increasing ability to learn and reason beyond his initial parameters, NeoG or CHNN might feel compelled to appropriate him for study. Then it is discovered that Yasu has been surreptitiously investigating Doge. On top of all that, Sapphi continues to get cryptic messages while she is in virtual reality, the first time during a Preliminary Game, later in her own personal Verge. The message is essentially, "Please, I need your help." She has to wonder if that is only in her head, something lingering from her death experience.

I won't reveal much of anything else about the mystery, except to say just about everything mentioned above comes into play, and that the climax is both exciting and dangerous for the NeoG crews. There are no real ghosts in the story, other than the ghosts of trauma within the minds of many. There is also new hope that those ghosts can be conquered, with the help of love and friendships. One of the guilty AIs has been destroyed(?), the other contained, for now. It seems Sapphi owns that AI since its creator was one of her ancestors, and Max is going to use her own money to help her study it, perhaps perfect it. Over and above all the other possible future scenarios, I want to know what becomes of Doge, how much more he can learn. Or he may just become a domestic pet, since Jenks is settling in to a stable relationship with Luis, even being called Mom by his two children. Hard to believe the Jenks as we first met her is now one of the responsible adults.

Now just a brief criticism, but one that doesn't alter the impact and appeal of the story. This is not the first futuristic tale to include modern references, but one would think that by the 25th Century, and due to the Collapse, the memory of a lot of things would have been lost. Jenks is obsessed with pre-Collapse times, and apparently some of our media survived. Not mentioned by name, but by description, a show she introduced to Tamago has to be Supernatural. One of the ships, can't remember now if it was one of the lost ones or one currently in use, was the Leonard Nimoy. Another NeoG Interceptor was the Flux Capacitor. Jenks got her nickname from a video game. A common meme was mentioned when someone said they were fine, Jenks's reply being, "You mean a dog surrounded by fire fine?" There were a few things Jenks talked about that weren't familiar to me, or to some of the other characters. If someone comes across these books a hundred years from now, how many of those references will be recognized? I'm glad Christa McAuliffe and Mary W. Jackson (the first black woman to work at NASA) had schools named for them. They are certainly worthy of honor, as they have been in our time, but will they be remembered more than 400 years later? You would think people and things more relevant to the 25th Century would have been mentioned.

Again, those things don't detract from the basic plot, they just threw me out of the story on occasion. I still recommend this series for its exciting action, but most especially for the character interaction. Max and Nika are now a 'couple' I guess, although it might be an open relationship since she is still asexual, or if not, it is never mentioned. D'Arcy, who is gay, resolves his differences with Emel, the one he had a troubled history with on Mars. She may remain one of his crew, but she has also ended the separation from her wife. Not too many other books, SF or otherwise, are likely to feature a lesbian who is also a devout Muslim. Several trans people are featured, both within the NeoG as well as other places. One was a trans actress/model with a crush on Jenks. In an afterword, Wagers said she debated whether Yasu should be trans, but eventually decided it was important to show people are not just the product of their identity or orientation, but that multiple personality types are to be found within any group. An interesting point to make these days when there is so much antagonism against trans and other queer groups. Hate and harmful actions should be rejected, no matter who or where it comes from. Even if Katy doesn't return to this world, they have two other previous trilogies I should check out. This series is recommended.


We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.


K. B. Wagers


Purchase Links:
Pale Light
Hold Fast

Pale Light
Hold Fast

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.