I'm a huge fan of David Weber's Honor Harrington series and several other Age of Sail stories which happen to be transplanted into space. I'm also a fan of the original Horatio Hornblower novels. However, my love of the Honorverse has dimmed over the years as the focus became less and less about the titular character. David Weber has become fascinated with the labyrinthine and complex politics of his universe to the deterrent of his female protagonist. So, one can imagine my intrigue at the prospect of a Young Adult series about a similar character which would remain firmly rooted around her adventures. Still, it would be an entirely different series and could it be as good as Weber's own? In fact, I daresay J.A. Sutherland has written an even better story.
The premise of novels is a riff on a traditional one of a young woman trying to escape an unwanted marriage. In this case, however, it is due to the fact her colony operates under archaic primogeniture rules which means her landowning family will be rendered destitute if her grandfather dies with no male heir or husband for her. Alexis Carew, seeking some way of escaping her situation, ends up becoming a midshipman on a departing royal navy vessel. Immediately, she finds herself put upon by a crew unaccustomed to women in the Fringe as well as the fact she has almost no experience with dark space sailing vessels. Soon, however, the crew will find itself imperiled by what predators await even Royal Navy ships in the void.
I absolutely love the main character and think of her as one of the best Young Adult protagonists I've read in a very long time. Admittedly, I don't normally read that much Young Adult fiction but she's up there with Katniss and is certainly highly ranked in my fiction protagonists period. A fifteen-year-old-girl who decides that life on her boring, chauvinist world where she fits in like a square peg in a round whole is worth joining Her Majesty's Navy. She's very recognizably a teenage girl even if you see the beginnings of greatness within her.
Into the Dark follows Alexis as she becomes acquainted not only with the naval terminology and space opera science of the setting but also how the world functions. Her relative ignorance as a poor (well, rich on her world) country girl seeing the big universe justifies a lot of the exposition even as we deal with the consequences of her knowledge. Yet, I never felt the many infodumps and explanations were unjustified or ever boring. It's very much a book about exploring and I think that's actually one of the novel's strengths.
The author does an exceptional job dealing with the daily realities of how a hypothetical Age of Sail spaceship would operate. I like the development of all of the crew ranging from her bunkmate to the Captain and the guy who repairs spacesuits. None of them are caricatures and all of them are welcoming even if they're somewhat off-put by Alexis' presence (women not being common on naval vessels in the retrograde Fringe--even if they're everywhere else in the setting).
Unfortunately, I suspect some readers of more traditional sci-fi will be off-put by the deliberate anachronisms. Things like manually loading weapons, that darkspace (hyperspace) works identically to an ocean, hoisting the darkspace sails, and other things which exist entirely for the Rule of CoolTM (if your definition of Cool is Napoleonic Wars ship elements IN SPACCCCE). There's some handwaves, just like there is with the retrograde gender roles, but it doesn't really work too well. You just have to accept them and move on. For me, having played Spelljammer back when it was possible, it was a lot easier for me.
The actual "plot" doesn't really begin until the very end of the book but, again, this didn't bother me in the slightest as it was the journey which was motivating me. I do think there's an interesting set-up for Alexis that she's joining the Navy in part to eventually return to her family home and reclaim it but I don't think that's going to be the sort of place she'll want to spend the rest of her life after she gets a taste of the universe. The fact I'm interested in how it all works out speaks well of the series.
In, conclusion, really--highest marks. Buy it! Buy it now! I also recommend people pick up the audiobook version as Elizabeth Klett does an amazing job with the main character as well as the others' voices.