I had finally caught up on my NetGalley reading, so I went on the hunt for more books to request, and Aethon Books was kind enough to grant my request for Black Sheep: A Space Opera Adventure. The description sounded very promising, and for the most part I would say that Rachel Aukes delivers on that promise. The protagonist is also disabled! Content note: the book contains ableist language, which I will discuss shortly in this review.
“Throttle” Reyne is the captain of a colony ship out of the violent Trappist system. When the ship suffers a catastrophic failure, she and her small but plucky crew must abandon it to search for help. They find a derelict vessel that might be their answer—except, when they return to their original ship, they find that pirates have stolen it! Eventually, Throttle and her crew end up in the Ross system, which has previously been colonized by other Earth expeditions. They are at odds with the pirates who stole the colony ship, and they need to find a way to get the ship and the cryogenically-preserved colonists back before it's too late.
I was pleased to encounter a disabled person as a protagonist! Specifically, Throttle has a childhood spinal injury resulting in paraplegia. To be clear: I am not disabled, so I’m not going to comment overly much on Aukes’ portrayal of Throttle’s disability. That being said, I have to question whether Aukes had any sensitivity readers for this book, because some of language used to refer to Throttle and her disability made me cringe. Almost at the very beginning of the book, Aukes refers to Throttle as “after spending much of her life confined to a wheelchair” (emphasis mine). I’m given to understand, in my learning about how to be less ableist, that many wheelchair users feel this language is harmful because their wheelchairs actually provide them with freedom and mobility they wouldn’t otherwise have. They are therefore confined/restricted without their wheelchairs.
A bit later in the book, Aukes mentions:
Throttle found herself as comfortable, if not more so, in zero g. There, her useless legs weren’t nearly as much of a detriment as they were in gravity.
I’m sure there are more examples throughout the book, or even subtler things I’m not picking up on because I’m abled. Look, I get that you want to explain how your protagonist’s disability makes her more comfortable in zero g, because it obviously alleviates some of her mobility concerns. There are ways to do that, however, that don’t compound ableist portrayals of disabled people. And this is an excellent example of why we need (paid) sensitivity readers in publishing: this is careless use of language and therefore easily fixed. Aside from the word choice, I didn’t pick up on any hugely problematic aspects of Throttle’s portrayal (but, again, I’m not qualified to do a sensitivity read here).
Ok, let’s move on from that and look at the rest of Black Sheep. Let me confess this book grabbed me more than I expected. I didn’t want to stop reading after I began it later one night, and I finished it the next day. I was into it! I like the snappy characterization, the way Aukes differentiates between their various personalities, and the way that each character gets a little more depth throughout the book. Certainly some of the tropes felt a little too worn—the computer with a heart of gold that just wants a friend, for example—but Aukes is skilled enough at making you not care about those clichés because you’re just having a good time.
The plot is fairly sensible and keeps to a good clip. Aukes sets up realistic problems and her characters come up with realistic solutions, with a good amount of wrenches thrown into the works for dramatic effect. My only real quibble here is with the ending itself. Without going into spoilers, let’s just say that Aukes pulls one of those fake-outs where you think everyone is safe and then BAM, disaster strikes. I understand the desire to leave on a cliffhanger to get people reading the next book. Nevertheless, on a purely subjective level, I would have preferred a happy ending and for this … explosive event … to occur at the beginning of Book 2, to jolt me out of my seat.
I also like the world into which Aukes throws us: for the first part of the book, Throttle and her crew from the Trappist-1 system believe theirs is the only one successfully colonized by Earth. So there’s a good element of mystery throughout, such as Rusty’s origins, and this doesn’t disappear once they reach the also-inhabited Ross system. Indeed, I love how Aukes answers a few of our questions but leaves more of them open for future books—or perhaps never to be answered at all (life isn’t fair)!
The subtitle is a little on the nose, but what can I say? It’s true. Black Sheep is space opera, is adventure, is fun with pirates. Throttle is that sassy-yet-capable heroine in the style of Dutch from Killjoys, and she has a good crew around her. Will I read the next book? Definitely maybe.