Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

“You’re quitting the Blackbirds?” The shock in Anthony’s voice was at odds with the finger he was languidly sliding over my naked back. “Why? You just made squad leader last year.”

“That’s why,” I said, swatting his finger away as I pulled on my shirt. “Nowhere left to go. Squad leader’s the last promotion before they stick you in a desk job.”

Deviana Morris is a successful, ambitious intergalactic mercenary. Already two years older than the career-average lifespan of 25, her goals are simple: enjoyment in life, and glory in death.

I loved Devi from the first page. When we first meet her she’s brushing off a casual lover who’s getting too serious, while unashamedly quizzing him for information that might help her progress her career. This woman has some serious style.

When Anthony tips her off about a job opening on a trading ship, she’s naturally skeptical: security jobs are boring. But the Glorious Fool has a reputation as a death trap for mercs, captain Brian Caldswell is almost as tough as Devi herself, and a full tour on board could give her the evidence she needs to snag her dream job in the King’s own elite guard.

It doesn’t take her long to make up her mind.

It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about ass-kicking heroines, but Devi would kick your ass straight into next week if you crossed her. In her powered armour, which doubles as a space suit, she could toss you across the room without breaking a sweat. She’s smart about it, though: as a young woman in a male-dominated field, she’s well aware of the need to prove herself quickly and conclusively with new colleagues, but she stops short of gratuitous violence.

The Fool itself put me in mind of Firefly‘s Serenity at first: a beat-up but functional craft, it’s inhabited by a tight-knit ensemble cast whose dynamics would work well on screen. Captain Caldswell runs a tight ship, but he comes across as a decent person despite his reputation, and his crew are clearly devoted to him. From bad-tempered pilot Basil (a giant bird) to slight and dreamy Nova (whose words I could only read in the voice of Luna Lovegood), it’s immediately obvious that the captain commands a loyalty which goes far beyond his generous pay-cheques.

But there’s an undercurrent of mystery, too. Ship’s doctor Hyrek is xith’cal, a lizard-like race known for their aggression, able to communicate with humans only by tapping out messages on a tablet: it’s all Devi can do to avoid shooting him on instinct. Mabel, the engineer, seems to have rather more authority than her role might suggest. Ren, the captain’s daughter, plays chess by herself and never speaks.

And then there’s Rupert. Tall, dark, and handsome, he’s immediately pegged as the love interest — or rather, given Devi’s religious avoidance of long-term relationships, the purely physical interest. But despite their obvious chemistry and his tendency to ply her with free drinks from the bar, he’s doesn’t fall into bed with her as easily as she would like.

The world-building of the Paradox universe is convincing but lightweight; you won’t find pages of hard physics here, and at times it strays into the realms of the fantastic. From the xith’cal lizards to the squid-like lelgis, there are some obviously alien races with their own characteristics, but the subtler distinctions between Terran and Paradoxian humans provide many of the more interesting social dynamics. The non-human species do provide the opportunity to examine gender roles without the usual cultural bias: in xith’cal society females are the scientists while males provide the force; a small number of lelgis females rule unilaterally. We discover that Hyrek has simply not chosen whether to be male or female, persisting in a neuter state into adulthood, while Basil dyes his feathers into female colours to avoid confrontation with his own species. Caldswell’s simple acceptance of these unconventional individuals goes some way to explaining his popularity with his people, despite the dangers to which he exposes them.

Written in a conversational, first-person style, Fortune’s Pawn is a fast-paced adventure that rockets around the universe in a series of hyperspace jumps, with mysteries unfolding at every turn. The ending is far from conclusive, leaving matters with a psychological cliff-hanger that had me reaching straight for the Kindle store (my addiction was such that I read all three books in a single weekend).

Fortune’s Pawn is the first of three novels in the Paradox series by Rachel Bach. She also writes fantasy under the name Rachel Aaron.

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