BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Devi Morris is a mercenary with the ultimate goal of becoming an elite guard in her planet’s military. When she learns of a position on a ship that could fast track that dream she signs up despite all the rumors about the ship being cursed. Things swiftly go downhill from there.
PROS: Fast-paced, intense action; excellently written characters; outstanding, believable romance; completely original take on worn, old military science fiction tropes.
CONS: A touch slow going at the beginning but a packed thrill ride once things start rolling.
BOTTOM LINE: A spectacular action-packed story that even people who don’t like sci-fi will adore.
Devi Morris has a plan. She wants to become a Devastator, the highest military order on Paradox. She’s done her time as an elite mercenary and an army grunt and now she has her sights set on the impossible. Unfortunately, the Devastator’s won’t look at anyone who doesn’t have a certain amount of experience. Devi can’t stand the idea of doing merch work for another five years so she signs up to be security on a ship called the Glorious Fool. One year on the Fool is worth five years experience to the Devastators. Despite rumors that the ship is cursed and has a very high mortality rate for the crew, Devi is overjoyed at the opportunity to reach her goal faster. Things start out quiet on the Fool but everything quickly goes to hell when she starts to learn the real secrets of the ship and its odd crew.
I’ll admit, I don’t read much space opera and military science fiction makes my eyes glaze over. I tend to stay in the realm of fantasy more, where thieves and assassins run wild and dragons hoard gold like they’re trying to get their own show on TLC. When I heard that Rachel Aaron, a fantasy author I like who wrote the Eli Monpress series, was branching out into science fiction I knew this was the time to take the plunge. Fortune’s Pawn is the first book in a trilogy released under her science fiction alter-ego, Rachel Bach. I was prepared to skim through long descriptions of futuristic tech and ships but, instead, I got my socks knocked clean off by the high levels of action, drama and intrigue. I simply could not put this book down, it had become glued to my hand with sheer awesome.
Fortune’s Pawn is told in first-person with Devi Morris as our eyes and ears. She’s whip-smart, savvy, stubborn and hilariously sarcastic. She’s a complete and total bad-ass. Undaunted by the rumors about the Glorious Fool, she signs up for a year-long tour of duty and quickly takes charge. Besides being a total kick-ass character, she also has an amazing suit of futuristic mech armor she calls the Lady Gray that she wears throughout most of the book. It’s a little like an Iron Man suit and it gives her added strength, power and information. There’s also her weapons, which she’s lovingly named Sasha, Mia and Phoebe. Devi Morris is not someone you mess with lightly and it was an absolute delight to be with her as the story unfolded.
The other characters on board the Fool are just as fascinating as Devi. There’s Basil, a giant bird-like alien with a low tolerance for stupidity who pilots the ship, and Nova, a trippy space hippie who acts as navigator. One of the coolest characters is Hyrek, the ship’s medic and a chitinous seven-foot tall insect alien who only speaks using a handheld device and who manages to be impressively funny and witty. The captain is an enigmatic man named Caldswell with a very strange daughter. Then there is Rupert, the cook. He’s handsome, smart and more than meets the eye. Devi and Rupert strike up a quick report and begin to share more than just drinking habits.
I’ll lay it out right here. This book has romance. Don’t hiss and recoil back — it’s a good thing! The slow, budding romance between Devi and Rupert enriches the story and becomes one of the essential mysteries of the book. This book would not have been half as good as it was if there wasn’t that tension between them. The romance doesn’t dominate the story, it’s just another facet of it, simply presented without fanfare. People fall in love, that’s something humans do. Being on a spaceship, thousands of years in the future doesn’t change or alter that. Devi owns her sexuality and doesn’t allow anyone to make her feel lesser for being a woman who enjoys sex. If someone tries, she just kicks their head in with the weighed boot of her combat mech armor.
The romantic subplot with Rupert is actually the catalyst to the real action of the book. Devi slowly starts to realize that things aren’t as they seem on the Glorious Fool. Caldswell disappears for days at a time saying he’s buying merchandise to trade. Rupert can shoot a gun that would shatter the arm of anyone who tried to do that without armor on. Caldswell’s daughter doesn’t speak a word and only plays chess by herself. Things come to a head when Devi goes to find Caldswell after he misses his rendezvous with the ship. She’s attacked by a giant invisible creature on a barely terraformed planet and everyone refuses to believe her when she tries to explain what happened. Later, a strange figure covered in weird black scales saves her from certain death aboard an alien ship. Devi begins to lose memories and to question herself and the people on the ship. It’s a fascinating, intricate plot that often left me reeling with the implications of what Devi was beginning to uncover. The ending of the book was so shocking that I had to stop myself from flailing and screaming in utter panic.
Fortune’s Pawn was an absolute roller coaster of thrills. The beginning started slowly and involved the requisite introduction of alien creatures, customs and assorted science fiction paraphernalia. Once that was out of the way, Bach turns it up to 11 and sends the story gleefully, recklessly hurtling into explosive action. The fight scenes are incredibly, viscerally satisfying. You can nearly smell the burnt ozone from plasma rifles and almost feel the thermite blades slicing through aliens like a hot knife through soft butter. The stakes never feel manufactured or fake. There is real danger whenever Devi has to go into fighting mode and you’re often left wondering how she and the others on the ship are going to make it out alive. The mysteries, twists and turns of the plot are also deeply amazing and leave you guessing as you uncover deceptions, betrayals and strange coincidences. Nothing is what it seems on the Glorious Fool.
Ultimately, Fortune’s Pawn is a bright shining beacon in a brave new world of science fiction storytelling. There’s violence and mystery, deceptions and intrigue, love and lust. Devi is an astounding character who faces her problems head on and isn’t afraid of anything (even when she probably should be). She’s ambitious and uncompromising. It was a pleasure to ride along with her as she started to uncover the answer to all the weird things that have begun to happen to her. The side characters are fascinating and colorful. They help present the idea of a vibrant, crazy, wonderful futuristic universe with fully fleshed out alien races and planets. It’s an exceptional first part of a planned trilogy with excellent storytelling; well written and well plotted. The wait for the next volume, Honor’s Knight, is almost a physical pain. This is a series that is going to blow your mind to itty, bitty pieces.