Review: Heaven’s Queen (Paradox #3), by Rachel Bach

March 24, 2015

Heaven's QueenFollowing the destruction of Reaper’s tribe, Devi and Rupert shelter on a Terran cash planet while Caldswell and his crew lead the lelgis through hyperspace and away from them. Their unplanned hyperspace jump has cost them a year’s worth of missing time, Devi’s virus is progressing towards a potentially fatal end, and they cannot turn to either of their governments for safety, as the Eyes are seeking to capture Devi and harness her virus.

This book is such a mixed bag of the brilliant and the frustrating. Let’s start with the frustrating.

I love Devi as a character, but alas, in Heaven’s Queen an imposter seems to have taken her place. Surely the Devi I know wouldn’t act so much like a petulant brat towards everyone from an old lover to a perfectly amicable space hippy, with her scenes in the Church of the Cosmos being so uncharacteristic that I have a hard time believing someone who acts so whiny and unadaptable over a bit of gravitational weirdness could’ve cut it in an elite mercenary unit like the Blackbirds. She might forgive the man who knowingly and willfully killed someone he thought was her, but she wouldn’t turn into a lovesick teenager carrying on about how he was the most important thing in the universe (especially once she’s embroiled in trying to save the universe), much less tolerate his jealously staking his claims over her in front of her ex like a dog pissing up a lamppost. She wouldn’t sit around playing house with her murderous beau without a single thought or qualm about the third of a species she was just responsible for annihilating.

Well, this Devi does. If Rachel Bach was writing about two different Devis, I wish I’d known sooner, because she sure as hell wasn’t writing about the one I met in the first book of the trilogy. And where the romance has never taken over up until now, it absolutely dominates the first half of the book. You forgive each other, but you shouldn’t be together, but you love each other, but you shouldn’t be together, but his hair’s so pretty, but you shouldn’t be together… You know, if the really great world-building and the epic plot and all of the fascinating supporting characters weren’t getting sidelined for this relationship, I might care more about the romantic angst. But they are, so I don’t.

Because of this, and because of the setup that has Devi and Rupert start off more or less stranded together, the beginning of the book is really quite slow and feels like an anticlimax after the way Honour’s Knight ended. Once the plot kicks into high gear, though, we hit the good stuff. It’s a shame the characterisation in this volume is weak because this is the finest display of Bach’s ability to sustain intensity without turning the story into the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay film, without drowning out the moments of wonder and horror like the haunting death of an emperor phantom or the final revelation of just what the Eyes did to Maat.

I found myself more interested in Maat’s story than in Devi’s, in a way. The conditions in which she was kept were so incomprehensibly cruel, and yet it’s hard to sit in judgement of those who put her there without thinking about how few of us, with the knowledge they had at the time, would have done any different to protect the universe and everything in it we held dear. For most of the trilogy she’s been a name hanging over the characters’ heads, but not much more than a silhouette of a character herself, played for creep factor. Here she becomes real, and it’s impossible to ignore what she was: A little girl tortured in the name of the survival of billions.

I really like the look into the nature of the lelgis and their motivations, as well. The enigmatic nature of Devi’s initial contacts with them and the presentation of themselves as guardians of the cosmos had me in mind of the vorlons from Babylon 5 for a while, but it was oddly fitting that something so epic originated from something so mundane and, well, human, as hubris.

The ending was a bit pat but I mostly appreciated that it wasn’t too drawn out. My favourite part about it was the Sacred King actually appearing on the page and the intriguing hints as to his nature. I hope that’s not the last we see of him; if it’s true that the author plans to return to this world with a different set of characters, I’d enjoy seeing something maybe a bit more localised in Paradoxian territory so that things like the Sacred King’s true nature and the history of how he came to be so sacred to Paradox could be explored in more depth.

I find myself coming back to the same thing I said at the end of book two: This trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken alone, Heaven’s Queen is a problematic novel with a suspenseful, and not ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Viewed in hindsight as a whole, I find myself more forgiving of the Paradox trilogy’s issues in light of its accomplishments, and I would like to see what other feats of world-building the author accomplishes. At some point, I will definitely check out the work she has written under her other name of Rachel Aaron.

3 stars

Review: Honour’s Knight (Paradox #2), by Rachel Bach

March 24, 2015

Honour's KnightDevi Morris’s stint as security aboard the Glorious Fool isn’t exactly off to a shining start. She has no memory of the attack that left her with a near-fatal gut wound, broken limbs, and a fellow merc to bury. The ship’s cook whose name she can’t remember, whose very visage sends inexplicable waves of revulsion through her, wants her off the ship for reasons she doesn’t understand but isn’t about to put up with. Weirdest of all, although her return to health allows her a return to duty, she can’t shake her visions of the little glowing bugs that trail her through the ship, or the painful black stain that sometimes spreads across her hands.

There’s a lot to like about Honour’s Knight. It’s a real page-turner, with a much broader portrayal of Bach’s intricate world-building than the largely shipbound first book, and, especially in the latter half, tightly-wound suspense in its many action sequences. The beating Devi took at the end of the last book doesn’t hold her back from being her usual kickass self in this one, and I think if anything she has a bit more agency this time around, because she’s so critical both to the climax of the story — she was a bit sidelined, though not for invalid reasons, during two of Fortune’s Pawn’s tensest action scenes — and to the future on a larger scale.

The novel also starts on a surprisingly dark note, elevating the trilogy from pure popcorn by introducing the moral theme of the value of the individual versus the security of the collective. There aren’t any black hats here because everyone, at least on the human side of things, has a sympathetic motive, and the conflict arises from their differing views on if and when the sacrifice of the one for the many is a choice we have the right to make. Everyone who played a minor role in the first book gets very well fleshed out in this one, and I really like the addition of Cotter’s replacement, Rashid. He puts a human face on the consequences of Caldswell’s operation.

That said, I can’t help but find this novel a bit weaker than Fortune’s Pawn because of its scattershot pacing in the first half. I hate memory loss storylines. I generally feel that it’s a cheap way of hitting the reset button so that more drama can be mined from treading already-trodden ground, from re-establishing relationships that we’ve already seen established, and I don’t find it dramatic, I find the wait for a return to the status quo boring. I anticipated spending a lot of Honour’s Knight gritting my teeth.

Devi’s story doesn’t really slow down too much. One of the frustrating parts of a memory loss storyline is waiting for the protagonist to catch up to what the reader already knows, but thankfully this isn’t a situation where we have the full story and are just waiting for Devi to get with the programme. Her encounter with Brenton at the end of the last book created more questions than it answered, and even if she had her memories she’s still got to find a lot of pieces to put the puzzle together, which come pretty fast. There’s not a huge gap between the point where the reader has enough information to see the bigger picture and the point where Devi can also, which minimised my annoyance. But she accepted her circumstances far too easily and the lack of impetus to investigate what she learned about Caldswell before her memory wipe means she has to be led by the nose more than I liked — or yanked by the spine, based on the uncomfortable description of her out-of-body encounter with Ren.

It’s got a bigger impact when it comes to her relationship with Rupert. Being subjected to him moping and giving her soulful looks gets tedious fast; when he demonstrates his willingness to put the mission before Devi with fatal consequences, it kills my interest in seeing her do anything except promptly get her memories back and put a bullet in him. The character becomes really unrootable and while I like that Bach allowed Devi her fury, it wasn’t enough. Anything more than a reluctant alliance should be dead in the water.

Yet… although logically, the pairing doesn’t work at all, the chemistry still does kind of rise off the page. It’s annoying that I can’t really name any reasons why Devi should be drawn to Rupert at this point besides ‘Well, he’s pretty’, but when they’re in a scene together the pages somehow fly by. When they’ve both got their memories, at least.

There isn’t an ending so much as a cessation so abrupt that I had to check I hadn’t missed something, and I’m glad I had the third book to go onto immediately. This trilogy feels a lot like one book chopped into three and I think some of my pacing quibbles stem from that. Put together it is greater than the sum of its parts.

3 stars

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

March 23, 2015

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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