Alexis Carew is the daughter of a large landowner on the colony of Dalthus. They are a farming community with a rich history but conservative patriarchal traditions. As the only heir of an aging landowner, she is stifled by the fact she can't inherit her grandfather's estate due to her sex. Having nothing else to look forward to, she signs up as a midshipwoman in Her Majesty's Navy, only to discover she is the ONLY woman in the Outer Colonies. Women only serve in the core due to the aforementioned traditions.
Alexis is a likable protagonist and strongly reminded me of Honor Harrington, the aforementioned protagonist of another favorite naval series. J.A. Sutherland has admitted the influence but the difference in the character's ages results in the two books having a distinctly different feel. Honor Harrington is confidant and ready for command as well as a genius. Alexis Carew is still figuring out her place in the Navy and whether she even wants to be there.
The first book takes time setting up what is meant to be a long series of YA adventures that chronicle Alexis' adventures across space. I've kept up reading the entirety of the series and consider them to be one long chronicle rather than multiple adventures. As such, I should mention the original book reads like the beginning of a much larger story at the end. Really, readers should pick up the next volume immediately after this one since it reads like the second act rather than the next volume.
The juxtaposition of 17th century British Navy values and settings with the far future isn't always an easy fit. This is supposedly set in the future but this feels very much like an alternate history set in a universe with different physics. Despite this, I had a lot of fun and kept in mind it was a steampunk story that was meant to be fun rather than a strict hard sci fi story of the future. Space opera fans will also love this book for its fantastical handling of action, drama, and weird science fiction concepts. Steampunk fans will love its retro-future sensibilities and all the homages to the past.
The world-building is simple and to the point but not poorly done. We have the galaxy divided between various equivalents to real-world governments of the 17th century and some deliberate nods to famous battles of the past. Alexis' inexperience with the Navy allows us to learn everything from port and starboard to how ships were run in the past. The books also incorporate a decent number of science fiction elements like the darkspace dimension that allows "sailing" elements like winds, storms, and shoals in an otherwise vacuum-filled universe.
Into the Dark also has some interesting fun with the logistics of space travel. In this universe, it's entirely possible to recycle the ship's wastes into solution that can be grown into beef and other food. Unlike Star Trek's replicators, though, the resulting food is barely edible but no one cares in the officers' ranks because they buy their own food and store it. Alexis plans on eating with the ranks right up until she tastes what they're forced to eat.
The only real flaw to the book is everyone is a bit too supportive at the start of the story. Alexis doesn't face her worst challenges until she's out of the comfort zone of the first book where most of the crew and its captain very much want to make her comfortable in her new role. The only antagonists are the despicable band of pirates which our heroes have to deal with on their first run as well as a very drunk sailor who the author has Alexis redeem. I'm not sure his crimes really warranted forgiveness and I'd advise most women who have that sort of treatment to report them rather than forgive them.
Despite its minor flaws, I think of Into the Dark to be one of last year's best new novels and I hope everyone who loves sci-fi and navy stories to give this one a shot. This is a coming of age drama that I enjoyed for its protagonist, its unusual setting, and the fact I'm a huge fan of space opera. Speaking as a writer of space opera myself, this is one of my favorite relaxation reads of the past few years.