Poor Man’s Fight by Elliott Kay
Poor Man’s Fight opens by introducing us to a group of spaceborne pirates led by the affable and charismatic Captain Casey, a charming scoundrel who initially seems like he’d get along fine with Mal Reynolds or Han Solo. Casey’s band of wisecracking space pirates have just crippled, captured, and boarded a massive corporate luxury liner, and they’re in the process of shaking down its wealthy passengers for valuables. Yet instead of harming or robbing the liner’s working class crew, Casey separates the crew from the rich people who have pressed them into service and offers them a deal.
Casey’s pitch is generous. If any of the crew wish to join the pirates, they’ll gain freedom from the crushing debt imposed by their corporate masters and a chance to join an egalitarian pirate family who share loot and responsibility equally. To make the deal even sweeter, any crew who join up will get a share of the loot being plundered right now. Yet regardless of their choice, Casey promises the crew they’ll be released unharmed at the end of the boarding action, so long as they don’t resist. It’s a tempting offer, especially given how deeply in debt the liner’s crew are to their corporate overlords.
Soon enough, a new batch of new recruits have joined the pirates, while those who refused have been efficiently packed into lifeboats and set free, just as Casey promised. That’s when the affable and charming Captain Casey (and his quippy and interesting crew of wisecracking space pirates) massacre the hundreds of wealthy men, women, and children remaining on the ship by venting them into space. If you imagined the crew of Serenity as psychopaths, that’s essentially who these people are.
While brutal and shocking, Captain Casey’s mixture of egalitarian generosity and cold-blooded murder becomes increasingly understandable thanks to way author Elliott Kay (who has extensively studied how historical pirate crews operated) writes his pirates. Kay does a terrific job of translating the actual methods, motivations, and thinking of historical pirates into a space age dominated by the 1%, and much of our time with the pirates comes through Darren, a poor hyperdrive tech who signs up with the pirates during their increasingly bold attacks. Darren’s fascinating journey offers a clear look at how pirates historically justified their actions and continued to recruit willing additions despite the dangers.
Yet Kay’s book is still military SF, which means running in parallel to its space pirate narrative is the soon-to-be-launched military career of Tanner Malone, a young man who never has any intention of joining his planet’s spaceborne navy. After he’s ensnared by his capitalistic society’s reliance on corporate-owned education facilities and laws ensuring he’ll never graduate school without crippling bills, Tanner’s debt forces him to enlist in the navy despite his reservations. And despite his distaste for violence and the lack of respect he’s shown by his first crew, he soon finds he excels at naval service.
Most of the first half of Kay’s book is devoted to Tanner’s training and later experiences on a small patrol boat in his planet’s navy, and while much of it is interesting, it feels very similar to all the military SF I’ve read before … at least until the final third of the book. After Casey’s crew of charming and murderous pirates takes over another passenger liner, literally every mundane and seemingly arbitrary skill the navy has drilled into Tanner suddenly becomes critically important, not just to his survival, but to the survival of hundreds of men, women, and children on yet another captured passenger liner.
As Tanner finally collides with Captain Casey’s pirate crew and even poor Darren (who’s just trying to survive) the book turns into Die Hard in space, and it’s great. One scene in particular involving hostage negotiation had me cheering, because it is exactly what I’ve wanted every hero to do in a bad situation. Without the setup and training sequences that preceded Tanner’s collision with Casey’s pirates, the tense cat-and-mouse action that follows might have seemed unbelievable, but because of how well Kay sets everything up in the first two-thirds of the book, every desperate gambit Tanner manages to pull off feels earned. Tanner’s final encounter with Casey’s pirates is riveting and fun.
Essentially, the first two-thirds of the book are interesting, but they also serve to tee up and deliver a thrilling third act aboard a crippled luxury liner with hundreds of lives at stake. If you enjoy pulse-pounding ship boarding activities, hostage negotiation, and asymmetric engagements, this book delivers in force, with some biting social commentary on for profit education and how the machinations of the 1% harm society at large interwoven into the action. Given Casey and Tanner’s circumstances, the title Poor Man’s Fight couldn’t be more apt, and a stinger at the end of the book (to be clear, the book does stand alone) offers tantalizing clues as to who is really behind these pirate attacks, teasing a sequel.
I’d heartily recommend Elliott Kay’s Poor Man’s Fight to fans of military SF, realistic pirates, plausible spaceborne naval boarding actions, and action movies. It’s a great ride that introduces a fun new scifi universe with multiple books for you to enjoy, if you choose, yet also stands completely on its own if you aren’t looking to invest in a new series right now (though you should definitely consider it!)