Regular readers to this blog are well aware that I, and many, many others, have fallen in love with Nathan Lowell’s books about life in the “Deep Dark” as ships of various sizes and shapes travel between star systems delivering passengers and goods. Milk Run is the first of what will become a series of stories that will explore the darker side of traveling in space outside of the jurisdiction of the Confederated Planets Joint Comission on Trade (CPJCT). Space is a dangerous place in Nathan’s universe where there is little or no law, except for that of “honor among thieves.”
The story opens with what appears to be an act of self defense that might be interpreted as murder by the Trade Investigation Commission (TIC) which sends two Academy graduates on the run to Toe-Hold Space, a place with little regulation or law. Natalya Regyri, recent graduate and owner of a small scout ship known as the Perigrine, are forced to go on the run with her best friend and fellow graduate Zoya Usoko to escape prosecution under false pretenses. Figuring that they will be safe, Natalya heads toward space that is not under the control of the CPJCT where she plans to use her vessel to make a living as a courier ship between systems. However, when Natalya and Zoya arrive near Dark Knight Station, they discover that the Perigrine has a damaged part that must be replaced before they can start their enterprise.
Natalya learns that it is going to be prohibitively expensive to have her ship repaired at Dark Knight and decides to sign on to work on a bar-bell freighter for a one-time trip to earn enough to get the part she needs so she can get down to business. She and Zoya accept a job offer from Mr. Kondur, the owner of Dark Knight Station, to sail with Captain Trask and a rag-tag crew to deliver a cargo to Siren Station and to bring a cargo back; it is promised to be a “milk run,” but thanks to a few twists and turns, and a few shady characters on board, the journey becomes anything but easy when it is discovered that a locker full of spare parts has been raided and replaced with worthless junk.
Those that are familiar with Dr. Lowell’s previous stories should be pleasantly surprised at the different tack that Milk Run takes from the Ishmael Wang stories where everything is well regulated and maintained. In Toe-Hold space, it would seem that most anything goes as long as the job gets done and the cargo gets delivered. This, at first is a foreign concept to Natalya being just fresh out of the Academy, but soon she finds a way to fit in with the routine on board. She knows her stuff and is quickly assigned the position of de facto chief engineer of the ship under Steve Pritchard, the “official” engineer on board.
Dr. Lowell has a smooth and flowing writing style that makes any of his stories difficult to put down. He writes characters that are easy to believe and relate to, and are often people that I would like to meet and get to know. In this story, there are characters all across the spectrum including those that are good people and bad, some are shady and mysterious, while some are just trying to earn a little extra money; they are ordinary people doing a job under extraordinary conditions. A reader can find characters in Milk Run to care about right from the start of the tale, but there are some that one has to take a little time to warm up to, as well as a few that one can see will be trouble as the story unfolds. Milk Run reads a little like a whodunit with all of the elements of the story satisfyingly resolved by the end of the book. For the most part, I enjoyed this book and I am looking forward to future installments, but at the same time, I was a tiny bit disappointed by the ending because it did feel a little rushed to finish. The resolution of the missing spare parts part of the story happened at a pace that was much faster than the rest of the book.
Please don’t let my nit-picky observation on the ending deter you from enjoying yet another great story. This one comes from the darker side of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper and opens up a new aspect of the universe created by this brilliant author. It is well worth a look and I highly recommend it for fans of space opera that appreciate a story that focuses more on character than on conflict.
Well, there it is…