Review: Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1), by Rachel Bach

Fortune's PawnDevi Morris has spent years working her way up the ladder of Paradox’s elite power-armoured mercenaries, but to achieve her goal of becoming a Devastator, part of the Sacred King’s own unit, she’s going to have to step outside her career path to accomplish something extraordinary. Working security on a trader vessel like the Glorious Fool definitely wouldn’t cut it, but on the advice of a friend and lover that there’s more than meets the eye to the ship’s strangely high turnover of guards, and that it’s just the kind of high-risk posting that might catch the Devastators’ attention — if she survives it — Devi takes the gig.

The crew of the Glorious Fool are a ragtag bunch: Besides Captain Brian Caldswell, his engineer sister-in-law, and his silent, disconcerting daughter, are a systems analyst from a space-dwelling cult with a very liberal view of gravity, a ship’s doctor from a race of lizard-like people more known for enslaving and eating humans than repairing them, a perpetually disgruntled navigator who’s essentially a giant bird, and another Paradoxian armoured merc Devi has to beat in line from day one. But far more intriguing to Devi is the beautiful, enigmatic ship’s cook, Rupert Charkov, who hides more than just his uncanny strength and reflexes.

I absolutely love Devi. She is an object lesson in how to write a strong female protagonist. She’s ambitious and genuinely loves her work, taking an almost childlike glee in her beautiful powered armour (which is almost a character unto itself) and guns, and she’s got a deserved confidence in her own capabilities, but she’s not immune to failure and frustration. She’s an unabashedly sexual person who decisively puts down the one character who attempts to slut-shame her for it, but it’s only one part of her life and not the most important one, and her career comes across as her greatest passion. She’s able to be vulnerable and experience a broken heart like anyone else, but it’s clearly not the end of her world and certainly doesn’t erode her professionalism. She is, in short, an awful lot like real women, only with more firepower than most of us, and it’s ever so refreshing to see her character type in science fiction.

The romance is not as dominant a factor in the book as I expected going in, and to start with it’s a well-written one. There’s no love at first sight nonsense here; it starts as a healthy attraction written with lots of chemistry, intensifies when she’s rebuffed and her curiosity is piqued, and evolves into something more emotional as the shipboard environment becomes more high-pressure. It falls down a bit for me in the second half of the book. Devi’s an intensely practical person, and although he’s shrouded in mystery to a large extent, Rupert begins as down-to-earth and reserved as well, so it’s a bit jarring when the dialogue between them turns a little overwrought and gushy. It’s not that egregious by romance standards, and I’ve certainly read worse, it’s just not the kind of relationship I picture these two fairly hardened people having. At that stage I’d envision them being the kinds to convey a lot with body language while leaving it unsaid. I think some of Rupert’s lines, in particular, feel a bit like wish fulfilment.

The world-building is something I’m really impressed by, especially given how much of the narrative is shipbound. We barely see Paradox, and yet there’s a great sense of what it and its ruling Sacred King mean to Devi, of the role that armoured units serve in its society, of its relationship with Terrans and the other species. The xith’cal and the aeons could’ve felt like just talking lizards and birds, but they don’t, with the xith’cal in particular feeling pretty distinctive. I love that we essentially get a genderqueer lizard-person discussing their gender identity with Devi at one point and that it feels so organic that these people are simultaneously convincing within the context of their societies, and also just as people.

Towards the end the book does involve one of my biggest storytelling pet peeves, something that I usually feel is excessively soapy and mostly exists to draw out a story by forcing it to retread already established ground. It made me somewhat grumpy about beginning the next book, but with enough faith in Bach’s writing to get over it. It’s also definitely not one for people who need each volume of a series to be mostly complete unto itself, because all the payoff is set up to take place in the next book. It’s a really promising setup, though, and you can see that all of this world-building is here to support a story that’s going to be suitably vast in scope. Unless you’re allergic to cliffhangers, it’s a solid sci-fi romance with the emphasis on sci-fi, and I’m glad the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club led to me reading it.

3.5 stars

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