If you’re a fan of TV shows about wayward starship crews taking on whatever job will keep them flying, you might be suffering though a dry spell right now, since shows like Firefly, Farscape, and Dark Matter are no longer running. But Mike Brooks’ Keiko novels could help fill the gap. They’re an addictive dive into a fantastic universe populated by an intriguing cast of characters, who are making their way through a future in which humanity has spread across the galaxy.
Some spoilers ahead for the entire trilogy.
The ongoing series began in 2015, and so far, it’s composed of Dark Run, Dark Sky, and Dark Deeds. The books follow the misadventures of Captain Ichabod Drift, a reformed pirate who now runs the freelance cargo ship Keiko. Humanity has spread out through space and has inhabited a number of solar systems, either creating habitable planets through terraforming, or burrowing under their surfaces. Breaking with his colorful past, Drift has turned to a life of cargo hauling and smuggling for anyone willing to pay the right price.
When we meet the Keiko’s crew in Dark Run, Nicolas Kelsier, a former minister from the European Commonwealth, has blackmailed them into transporting a mysterious package to Earth. The cargo turns out to be a bomb — part of a revenge scheme put together by Kelsier against his former employers. The crew averts disaster, then sets off to exact revenge on the man who put them all at risk.
Brooks adopts standard sci-fi conventions like cybernetic mercenaries, interstellar spies, and frontier mining planets, but he keeps the story humming along with vivid characters and a fully realized universe. Drift is a colorful, and not always competent character who has surrounded himself with an intriguing mix of mercenaries, hackers, and muscle. There’s the massive Māori fighter Apirana Wahawaha, and Chinese brother-and-sister team of Jia and Kuai Chang, who serve as the Keiko’s pilot and mechanic, respectively. Their misadventures feel like a tiny part of a much larger world, with each character playing some role in revealing its history and layout. Drift is appealing because of his flaws: he isn’t an omniscient figure for the crew: he’s just making his way through the universe to make a living in the way he knows best.
That living isn’t always easy. Like in Firefly, the Keiko’s crew mostly inhabits a criminal underworld. We stop through seedy bars, boxing arenas, and remote offices where the occupants would rather avoid official attention. With each installment, we’ve gotten to see a little more of the larger human space, and it’s a vibrant, chaotic mess that Drift and his crew must navigate.
After Dark Run, Brooks sticks to a comfortable formula: the crew accepts a mission, only to have it go sideways on them. In the follow-up Dark Sky, a crime boss named Sergei Orlov hires Drift and his crew to visit a mining world called Uragan to retrieve some information for him. However, things go south shortly after they arrive, as the local inhabitants start a revolution against their government. The crew is trapped beneath the planet’s surface, and they rush to complete their mission and escape.
Dark Sky is probably the weakest entry in the series, but it’s still worth picking up. While the first novel is largely a standalone adventure, Brooks brings the second book to a rather abrupt end, which would be frustrating if you didn’t have the next book close at hand. Dark Sky also doesn’t engage deeply with its political narrative: the uprising is driven by poor treatment of the miners, but it simply runs in the background of the story, rather than impacting the crew in any meaningful way.
Brooks regains his footing with Dark Deeds, released last year. After the failure of a mission in the last book, Orlov holds Drift’s second-in-command Tamara Roarke hostage, while the crew races to repay their debt to him. As in the other two books, the crew comes up with a plan and executes it, but things go sideways in some unexpected ways.
By the time I got to the end of Dark Deeds, I realized that while the individual entries in the series don’t vary too wildly, Brooks is laying out something a bit more interesting than a series of heists and hijinks of the crew of a starship. It’s an exciting portrait of that ship’s crew, and how they rely on one another when things don’t go the way as planned. Like any of the best science fiction television shows out there, Brooks puts his cast of characters front and center, and I hope that we’ll get to ride along with the crew of the Keiko before too long.