LitStack Review: Heaven’s Queen by Rachel Bach

by Sharon Browning
Heaven’s QueenHeavens Queen
Rachel Bach
Release Date:  April 22, 2014
ISBN 978-0-316-22112-2

I love Devi Morris.

Devi is the heroine of Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, a trilogy of sci-fi/romance novels that gets it right – a hefty amount of other-worldly, spacey content to appeal to science fiction fans and enough romance to keep it interesting without scaring anyone away.  (Sorry, no “Bodice Busters in Space” here, just the right amount of steamy.)  In fact, the strength of this entire series has been Ms. Bach’s ability to balance rote expectations with realistic outcomes, meaning that while some of the most dangerously overused tropes are in play (plucky, uber-leet heroine; gorgeous, potentially unobtainable love/hate interest; rebellion against the chain of command vs shifting loyalties; unknown creature threats, etc.), she manages to handle them deftly, sans overblown, soggy story line, character or prose.  This is superbly written stuff, folks.

That being said, one caveat before reading Heaven’s Queen, the third book in the series:  you really do need to read the first two before devouring this one.  While you would be able to piece together the action and background, and eventually the relationships, you’d be missing a very rich back story, and that would be a cryin’ shame.  Some trilogies are written to allow a reader to jump in at any time – this is not one of those.  (Feel free to check out LitStack’s reviews of the other two books in the series:  Fortune’s Pawn and Honor’s Knight).

Notice: if you have not read the other books in the Paradox series, the following contains spoilers. 

If you’ve followed Devi this far, you won’t be disappointed with Heaven’s Queen.  There’s a lot to be reconciled in this final book in the series:  just what are the alien “phantoms”, and the little glowing bugs that it seems like only Devi can see?  Just what is the virus that Devi has contracted – it’s obvious that its effect is deadly for the xith’cal, but just why are the lelgis so very interested in it?  Is Brian Caldswell really the monster he seems to be, and what is his true motivation?  Is Maat really a tragic victim, or is she truly a mad child who needs to be contained for humanity’s – and her own – good?  Do the ends ever justify the means?  And most importantly, will Devi and Rupert ever be happy together?

Honestly, if you’ve read the books this far, you pretty much know the answer to most of these questions – but also honestly, that’s not the point.  The point is the joy ride in getting there.

For those coming to the series fresh, Deviana Morris is a highly skilled, highly trained, totally focused mercenary warrior from the Paradoxian planetary system.  Hoping to catch the attention of the High King’s guard (her lifelong dream is to become one of their elite fighting unit – the Devastators), she signs on for security duty with the Glorious Fool, a ship of dubious intent and a reputation for getting into – and out of – more dangerous, deep space situations than should be allowed by fate.  While Devi is stationed with the Glorious Fool and its eclectic crew (including the gorgeous, mysterious, obviously more than he appears to be “cook”, Rupert Charkov), she runs into more than her fair share of trouble, including the investigation of a “dead” xith’cal tribe ship (the xith’cal being a warmongering, brutal society in direct conflict with humans) which harbors zombie-like survivors, infected with a deadly virus.  Devi is bitten by one such xith’cal and contracts the virus – but its affect on her is decidedly different and attracts the attention of the remote, powerful jellyfish-like lelgis.  Apparently the virus is also deadly to “phantoms”, a mysterious, invisible, non-carbon based species that is made of and exists on plasmex (somewhat along the lines of “the Force”), found in sentient life forms, as well.  When phantoms and inhabited planets interact, it goes very badly for the planets – as in total-obliteration badly.

Devi’s ability to sustain the virus makes her coveted material for several hidden factions that have been playing a cutthroat game of destiny and survival throughout the entire galaxy, and everyone that Devi encounters seems to have ulterior motives (including the aforementioned gorgeous hunk, Rupert).  They all also seem to be keyed on not only Devi, but on a girl who is the most powerful plasmex user in the universe – and who is also being held captive, and who is also quite insane.  Not being one to go quietly into the good night, Devi, with her powerful set of armor that makes her nearly invincible and her beloved weapons, defies the would be power mongers by jumping out of the established end game and playing by her own rules – which has her constantly on the run, constantly under fire, and constantly unsure of who she can trust and who she has to believe – for the time being, at least.

Heaven’s Queen brings about the resolution of Devi and Rupert – something that will surprise no one – and this actually is one of the weaknesses of the final book.  Heretofore, author Bach has handled the romance very deftly, just enough – just explicit enough, just arousing enough, just importantly enough -to keep from turning off the more “science fiction enthusiast” reader while keeping the attention of those who like a bit of unabashed romance with their action.  But in Heaven’s Queen, there are a few too many dewy eyed moments, a few too many protestations of love despite obstacles, a few too many selfless sacrifices; the relationship between Rupert and Devi becomes somewhat trite.  While it is good to see them finally working together as a unit rather than pitted against each other by circumstance or by command (or in Rupert’s case, performing while stealthed in secrecy), there could have been a few less instances of cloying head/heart games/declarations and a bit more confidence in themselves and each other.

Still, the action makes up for any weakness in the romance.  Heaven’s Queen is chock full of action, scene piled upside scene; by the end of this book, I was almost physically worn out just by reading it all!  But as with the earlier volumes in the series, Ms. Bach manages to skillfully build a story that is tight and focused as well as taunt and exciting – there is little that is superfluous here, everything happens for  a reason.  That reason may not be readily apparent, but it becomes so later; there is little wasted motion,  and that makes the book(s) eminently readable and enormously enjoyable.  There may be a few stumbles in the sentimentality department and the ending may be a little pat, with resolutions that feel somewhat superficial after three rollicking books – but that doesn’t feel “wrong”, either.  We’re getting pretty much exactly what we want.

Heaven’s Queen, and in fact, the entire Paradox series, may not be the most high brow of science fiction, and it may not be the most wallowing of romance, but it (they) succeed amazingly in building a truly unique and compelling story using fantastically imagined characters on the backdrop of tried and true idioms of two separate genres.  Bottom line – all three books are a fantastic read.  And I bet by the end of Heaven’s Queen, many of you will end up loving Devi Morris just as much as I do.

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