Like all really good epics, this one starts off small, with the concerns of ship navigator Jim Horne. He has to listen to their Federation agent passenger complain about the absurdity and danger of his mission–tracing and stopping the enslavement of nonFederation humanoids on unallied Fringe worlds–wonder vaguely about the politics of the passengers they are picking up on the also non-allied world Skereth, and try to find a replacement for their second nav/pilot after the kid gets beaten up in an alley.
Fortunately, a replacement is directly at hand: Ardric, who is Skereth-ian but has some piloting experience, and….what, you guys didn’t do any background checks at all? Not even checking references? Not even checking on his prior listed voyages? Hmmm.
And it turns out that they very much should have done this, because Ardric proceds to steer the Yoga Queen (yes, that’s the ship’s actual name) directly into an asteroid field, laying the blame on the drugged and unable to defend himself Horne. You see, Skereth is bitterly divided between the party of Morivenn, who wished to join the Federation, and the Vellae, who don’t. Ardric happens to be the son of a Vellae leader. And Morivenn was one of the ninety-eight casualties on board the Yoga Queen.
But with the frameup being as perfect as it is (and trust me, it’s not all that great. The only evidence against him is circumstantial, two empty bottles of brandy in his cabin and him in a stupor. Does Horne have a history of drinking, on or off duty? Does he have any record of negligence or habitual mistakes? What was the exact timeline of the incident and how does everybody’s actions match up? Horne blames the replacement navigator–who is someone hired at the last planet, who admits he has a political grudge against the very politically important passengers, and who, I repeat, did not have any kind of background check before he was hired. Are you not allowed a lawyer in Ship Kangaroo Court?) Horne has no choice but to go on the run to clear his name.
And what are the Vellae doing with the slaves torn from the many worlds of the Fringe–worlds which the Federation cannot protect–slaves who, when they come to Skereth–disappear forever? (There is indeed a satisfying answer to this question, rest assured.)
There is also the statesman’s beautiful daughter (who is in the planetary equivalent of the Coast Guard and can handle an airship’s guns as coolly and competently as any hero or heroine should.) She also ends up helping lead the slave rebellion while dressed in an off-world priestess’s bikini-top-and-skirt combo, which is really masterful writing on Hamilton’s part, when you think about it.
I think my overall favorite character is Fife, the humanoid escaped slave who leads the other escapees: his cool calculations laid over a deep and ferocious hatred of any aligned with the Vellae–but who maintains his reason and fairness through it all. I liked the young kid navigator who got his arm broken, even though he’s only there for two chapters: he shows some good spirit and I was hoping that he’d come back.
The villains are a bit flat: Ardric is mainly the spiteful type who sneers and spits at his lower class (in this case nonhuman) inferiors and would twirl his moustache if he had one. (If he’d manage to capture Yso and there were railroad tracks in the Great Project, then you know what would have happened.–that sort of villain. Slightly more human, but mostly just a straight antagonist, is Horne’s ex-captain and bitter accuser, Wesek (?). But that gets wrapped up well, too.