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In the Black    by Patrick S. Tomlinson order for
In the Black
by Patrick S. Tomlinson
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2020 (2020)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I thoroughly enjoyed Patrick S. Tomlinson's rollicking space adventure, Starship Repo. Now he brings us something quite different in In the Black, where humans and alien Xre maneuver in a demilitarized zone, each wondering what the others - and their superiors back home - are up to. The author gives readers both human and alien perspectives on a conflict that the front lines would seem to prefer to avoid.

On the human side we have Captain Susan Kamala and the crew of the Ansari on a boring (soon to be much less so) tour of duty of the Eridani system. They notice recon drones going dark and suspect a treaty violation. Commanding (by consensus generation according to their culture) the Xre side is derstu Thuk, who quickly questions the Grand Symphony's (his government's) 'wisdom of sticking a claw back in the human's mound' by ordering the drone kills. As they skirt the edge of actual warfare, the leaders earn each other's respect.

Another plot thread follows Ageless Corp CEO Tyson Abington on Methuselah, capital of planet Lazarus. Ageless is one of the oldest and most stable transtellars. Tyson's AI assistant Paris warns him of a bacterial outbreak on one of the colonies, affecting stock prices. After researching the outbreak, Dr. Elsa Spaulding tells Tyson that she believes it was deliberately engineered. When Tyson is attacked directly - and is told that war has erupted with the Xre - he and Dr. Spaulding head secretly to the scene of the action.

After the Xre ship gets into serious trouble and sends a distress call, Susan opts for helping, rather than destroying, these fellow spacers 'Sent out here in the black to poke at monsters, by monsters.' She hopes that her olive branch might lead to communication between species and ultimately, to peace ... which turns out to be a good move after her own people betray her.

This exciting episode ends with a meeting between Tyson and Susan as they plan how to fight back. Though it took me a while to get settled in to this read, once I did I was hooked. I can't wait for what comes next In the Black.

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