LitStack Review: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

by Sharon Browning
Fortune’s Pawn
Rachel Bach
Orbit Books
Release Date: November 5, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-316-22111-5

In fiction, as in life, there is a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime.  This is especially true in the fantasy and science fiction realm, because a scifi/fantasy author must build something at least somewhat recognizable out of an alien landscape.  Sometimes the focus is so sharp on putting forth an involving and unique story, that other aspects of the writing suffer from flatness or hyperbole, such as poorly realized characters.

One of my pet peeves in SF/F genre are what I call “uber leet” heroes and heroines – where the central character is inordinately gifted in physique, skill, wit and beauty.  Only token flaws, and an uncanny ability to overcome any and all obstacles.  I even wrote a LitStack commentary on it.  But – if only all those writers who created uber leet heroes would have read Rachel Bach’s sci fi novel Fortune’s Pawn, they would have seen how wonderful a kick-ass hero can be when she’s done right.

Deviana Morris is a warrior.  But she has just resigned her commission from the Blackbirds, the top private armored  company on Paradox, because the next step for her, although a promotion, would have had her sitting behind a desk rather than thrown in the middle of the action.  Besides, Devi has a plan – she wants to become a Devastator.  The biggest, baddest warriors in the Sacred King’s arsenal.  Under His direct command, these are the guys who go on the most dangerous and important missions.  Ever since she was a little girl and first discovered the thrill of a good set of armor, Devi’s been dreaming of wearing the golden champion armor of the Devastators.  But you don’t ask to become a Devastator- they find you.  And she knew they wouldn’t come looking for her if she was sitting behind a desk.

So, Devi heads out to make a name for herself in the frontier of space.  She’s not worried about being able to do the job.  She brushes off that she’s younger than most hired mercs, or that she’s shorter and more petite than expected, or that some folks only gauge her by her looks and not her accomplishments; she’s laser focused, has sharply honed skills, excels in training, and she’s got some of the best armor and weapons on the market.

The Lady Gray was a suit of Verdemont Knight-class armor made just for me.  Verdemont Armory is one of the oldest armor companies on Paradox, which is saying something considering our age-old obsession with the stuff, and they only make custom suits.  Nobility or common born, Verdemont is the best you can buy, and I’d dumped two years’ wages to make sure I was buying the best.  My equipment is my life; I only buy quality.

Wearing Lady Gray and wielding Sasha (anti-armor pistol), Mia (plasma shotgun) and Phoebe (thermite blade), she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Steered towards a ship who some consider cursed, whose captain has a reputation for finding trouble and “who goes through security teams like tissue paper”, Devi signs on with the Glorious Fool because she has been told that serving one year under Captain Brian Caldswell is considered as good as serving five years elsewhere in the eyes of the Royal Army – and therefore the Devastators. Guard work is not glamorous and it sure isn’t her idea of a good time, but if it will get Devi closer to her dream, then nothing will stand in her way.

The Glorious Fool proves indeed to be a ship that attracts trouble.  It’s crew is eccentric, from the avian navigator to the doctor who comes from a bloodthirsty race known to eat humans. Captain Caldswell is severe and brooks no arguments, but treats his crew fairly; his daughter and sister (second in command) are also on the ship.  Devi’s roommate is a dreamy, cosmic flower child who grew up in zero gravity (“There is no top or bottom in space.  We all are exactly where we are meant to be.”), and her fellow security guard is a typical loudmouth, brutish good ole boy in armor.  Then there is Rupert, the cook, who is tall, blue eyed, black haired, gorgeous and so much more than he seems at first.

But the real mystery is the purpose of the ship itself.  Not a trading ship, not on a diplomatic mission, nor a smuggling operation, the Glorious Fool engages in dangerous missions where Devi’s skills and commitment are put to the test time and again – and usually leave her with a buttload of unanswered questions.  Before too long it becomes apparent that the Glorious Fool and its captain (like Rupert) are much more than they appear, and Devi must decide just how much she’s willing to risk – in life, limb, and honor – to hold on to her dream.

Beyond the intriguing story line, what is so compelling about Fortune’s Pawn is author Rachel Bach’s ability to take tried and true (and often somewhat flat and predictable) genre tropes and make them fresh and unexpected.

For instance, her treatment of Devi.  Beautiful, tough, smart, sassy – Devi is everything we have come to expect in an sci-fi action adventure heroine; with her fancy armor and weapons, she might even have graced the pixels of some cutting edge next gen video game.  But Devi plays just enough against type to be believable, and interesting. She comes from a disadvantaged background, but doesn’t have the classic angst of abuse or personal tragedy to ratchet up smarmy emotional content.  Yes, she has her flaws:  she drinks too much, and that laser focus that makes her such a good merc has cut her off from meaningful relationships.  Because of her training, she’s always on guard; because of her job, she approaches everything with an element of distrust.  Her snap judgments don’t always serve her well, and while she’s very good at what she does and her armor is kick ass, she’s vulnerable when she gets in over her head – and she does get in over her head.  Indeed, there are times when no amount of skill or equipment or quick thinking is going to keep her safe – a turn of events that is very rarely see in science fiction, but is very deftly (and realistically) handled in Fortune’s Pawn.

Then there is the romance angle.  Indeed, there is romance in Fortune’s Pawn.  It’s a swash-buckling, animal attraction, beautiful people attracted to beautiful people sort of romance – but again, it’s not handled in a stereotypical way. In fact, Rachel Bach says in an interview that she got the idea for Fortune’s Pawn when she herself wanted to read an action packed space romance, but couldn’t find one that “scratched the right itch”.  Yet while there are plenty of lusty glances and sweaty groping, the sex – while not the “fade to black” variety – is not gratuitous, and the relationships also add to the mystery that permeates everything else occurring on the Glorious Fool; in this book, it is very true that things are not what they seem, above decks and below.

But what really captivated me about Fortune’s Pawn is that it took me into a future that was unlike any I had seen or experienced before, both familiar, and utterly strange.  For instance, there is a warlike reptilian species in Fortune’s Pawn that is blood-thirsty and aggressive, from what we learn of them through Devi’s understanding, they are as familiar as any other lizard-like bad guys.  But as the story progresses, we get to know more of them, glimpsing deeper into their culture and their mindset – not in an anthropological way, or a sympathetic way – in fact, we learn of them not because of what they do,  but because of what is done to them.  We don’t end up liking them any better, and these glimpses don’t give us any hope for their “rehabilitation” or any reconciliation, but it does make them deeper and clearer in our experience.

Then there are the elements – sometimes threatening, sometimes latent – that are not bipedal humanoids, and those are fascinating.  These are not just physical opponents, but threats or disruptions that come from unknown agents for unknown reasons.  Then there are the things that are just plain baffling.  The deeper the Glorious Fool heads into space, the deeper the mystery layers around Devi, and we’re not entirely convinced that the biggest danger doesn’t sit in the captain’s chair.

This is a wonderfully built story, in turns intimate and expansive, recognizable and utterly alien.  By the end of Fortune’s Pawn (which is the first of at least three Devi Morris books), the reader has been given just enough in the way of answers to be drawn in to this ever evolving story, yet there still remains so many questions that need to be addressed.  And just like Devi facing a xith’cal raiding party, we want to wade into the next book with guns blazing.

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