Joss Whedon’s Firefly did not invent the space opera caper subgenre, but it pretty much perfected the form, and a whole host of writers have followed in the wake of that cult sensation, hoping to help readers scratch the same itch. By now, we all know what to expect from these stories: a ragtag crew, incredibly high stakes, an elaborate plan that will inevitably go wrong, many thrilling near-escapes, large-scale chaos, maybe even a gunfight or two.
After two books bursting their bindings with just such morally questionable missions, Mike Brooks may have hit his own heist high with Dark Deeds, the third tale of Ichabod Drift and the crew of the smuggling/courier ship the Keiko, and he’s done it by tweaking the familiar formula: rather than engineering another story in which everything goes wrong, he’s figured out a way to have everything go right, but in horrible and unpredictable ways. Another bonus: while this series has always boasted a highly diverse cast and a fair share of strong women, book three goes out of its way to give agency to its female lead. This a sequel that not only doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, it manages to do its predecessors one better.
After their previous scheme sparked a civil war, the crew of the Keiko decides to take it easy, heading to an illegal gambling port to spend their ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, the place turns out to be owned by Sergei Orlov—the very same disgruntled client whose job they didn’t complete after they triggered said civil war. Orlov believes he deserves recompense, and kidnaps Ichabod Drift and his first mate, the tough, terse Tamara Rourke. Ichabod is left with an ultimatum: either return with half a million dollars in Stars—the local currency—or Orlov will kill Rourke slowly, film it, and make Ichabod and the rest of his crew watch it before slowly murdering them too.
With few options open to them thanks to Orlov’s death grip on the local systems, Ichabod and the Keiko hit on a plan to rob a corrupt official during a boxing match and abscond with the massive payoff. With a sinister promoter lurking in the wings, rampant corruption on all sides, and Orlov’s true plans for dealing with Rourke complicating matters, the pressure is on like never before.
It’s not uncommon for a heist novel to start its characters off in a decent spot, then shove them down an increasingly steep, obstacle-laden hill. Dark Deeds somehow delivers the expected thrills and suspense, even as everything goes horribly right. The fixed fight goes too well, leading to fraught relations between Drift and the events promoter. The attempted robbery goes exactly as planned, but shadowy political maneuvering in the background drops the crew into a completely unrelated firefight just minutes later. With darkly comic glee, Brooks gives Drift and his compatriots exactly what they want, in exactly the way they don’t want it, making them look hyper-competent even as the strings attached to each of their objectives tie them in unexpected knots.
Meanwhile, rather than allowing Tamara Rourke to cool her heels in the villain’s clutches while the Keiko crew figures out how to rescue her, Brooks gives Roarke her own route out of Orlov’s prison. She works her own grifts, worming her way through Orlov’s political structure (so effectively, she’s even offered a job at one point) and thinning out his crowd of lackeys, all while still technically remaining a prisoner and bargaining chip. And it’s no mere sideshow; Rourke’s sections are the most suspenseful part of the novel, grafting a taut, kinetic spy thriller onto what was already a pretty darn thrilling space opera adventure. The whole affair shows Rourke, who was largely something of a cipher in the first two novels, and begins this one by murdering two of the men who imprisoned her, to be a far more capable and nuanced character than a lesser book would allow her to be.
Three books in, and Mike Brooks is still delivering the goods. Never mind the strengths outlined above—it’s one of those series that is fun to revisit for a few hundred pages more. The folks onboard the Keiko—and we didn’t even touch on most of them, from no-longer-a-rookie computer slicer Jenna, to imposing Maori muscle Apirana, to bickering twins Jia (the pilot) and Kuai (the engineer)—manage to transcend familiar tropes and even step out of the shadows of their familiar TV counterparts. Plus, they’re damn fun to hang around with.