It's the far future. Humanity has begun to spread through the stars, with the assistance of wormholes, kept open by the technological advancement of jump gates. They've started colonising the universe, with the colonies mining the wide resources available to them, and sending them back to Earth, which can always use more. Of course, people being what they are, the Colonies resent having to give up the things they've put significant risk and effort into retrieving. Which is what sparked the first space war, between the Frontier and the Colonies.
Luckily, that finished ten years ago, and is the last thing on the mind of Hannah on her first day as a tour guide at Sigma station. Sigma was a Frontier military outpost, but is now repurposed as a civilian holiday resort, with spectacular views of the "Neb", the Horsehead Nebula. And it's the only place she coan get employment, with an academic background in anthropology (specifically elements of that space war), and not quite the same technical abilities of her rather more driven family.
Which is how she finds herself on a crummy little spaceship, doing her best to sound enthusiastic to a collection of tourists who have signed up for a short sightseeing space flight around the station. And it's how she lives through the attack on the station by a technologically advanced ship, that uses spheres of death to destroy everything that has even a hint of a thermal signal. That leaves her trapped in space, with nine other people, and no idea of where to go.
Do they wait where they are, hoping that rescue will come? Do they head out for the nearest jumpgate, and risk the attack ship being there to cut off any stragglers? Hannah has no idea, but she does at least have Volkova, the ex-military pilot of the Red Panda, who has to pull some crazy stunts to keep them alive in an exploding debris field.
Along for the ride are various characters in the tourists, including a family of four, an intense couple of newlyweds, an experienced space-mining widow, and a hotel reviewer. Naturally, they all have conflicting opinions on how best to deal with sudden decompression hazards and a lack of food, and they're not going to stay compliant for long. They all have their own motivations and tend to not be entirely relaxed about how they achieve them.
It's a classic survival thriller. Stick ten people in a tiny space, tell them they can't leave it without dying and suggest there might be a threat coming back for them, and they're not going to stay stable for long. We've got all of the expected interpersonal conflicts, hideous dangers to survive and a nice bit of space politics. Why would the Colonies want to re-start the war in the final days of the treaty negotiations? Is there anyone on board who might know what is really going on? Just where is all the booze?
I read this more or less straight through, as it kept me gripped from start to finish. The different personalities never run together, each with their own voice, and they're sufficiently interesting that I was kept gripped as to which (if any) of them would make it to the end of the book. It's a multi-viewpoint work, with each character getting a couple of chapters at a time, and these insights into their heads gave it a richness you wouldn't necessarily get from a single viewpoint.
There are hints here of the darkness in humanity that reveal themselves when trapped (see the Doctor Who Ep "Midnight" for something similar), but also the ability of people to work together in order to survive adversity. In particular, I enjoyed the child characters, who managed to avoid that trap of being irritating that kids often fall into. Still, not quite as awesome as Volkova, who fits into that archetype of the dishonorably discharged old soldier who takes her pride from her incredible piloting ablities, even on a rust bucket like the Panda.
Excellent book, and may have to go hunting for more of Boffard's work.