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Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in a new series by Rachel Aaron, writing as Rachel Bach, as she tackles military space opera after her popular Eli Monpress adventure fantasy series.
“Its not often I get to use the words stunning and spectacular and superb all in the same sentence for a novel, but Fortune’s Pawn is a novel that deserves all those epithets and more. Its a fantastic tale that reminded me often of the old style of space opera, the fun-loving adventure kind that doesn’t take itself too seriously and focuses on the fun above all else.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Its always great to see authors branch out of one genre and into another, especially after a successful stint in the former. I’ve seen this recently with a few of the newer Black Library authors and its been great as far as I’m concerned. In the more… mainstream publishing, it doesn’t happen as often nowadays since the authors typically tend to stick to their “first” genre, experimenting only within a subgenre, if that. At least, that’s what I’ve seen in my limited experience and I could very well be wrong. But, in recent times, the only author to do so who comes to mind is Rachel Aaron, who has written a number of popular fantasy novels for the Eli Monpress series, of which I’ve read the first two books and found them both to be excellent examples of a more modern epic fantasy genre.
Late last year, Orbit announced that Rachel Aaron would be writing a new trilogy for them and that these novels would be military space opera, which is as far as you can go from writing epic fantasy if you want to. The two genres couldn’t be more different. Interesting was also the fact that Rachel would be credited on this new trilogy as Rachel Bach, a branding strategy to differentiate her fantasy novels from her science fiction ones for the common, regular reader. I was really excited to find out about this series since I’m a fan of Rachel’s work and also a fan of the military space opera genre. Extremely excited in fact. And reading the novel earlier this month justified that excitement, and then some.
The protagonist here is a former mercenary by the name of Deviana “Devi” Morris who has mustered out of her outfit and is looking to go private, or rather, she wants to be the best power armour operator out there, and there are none better than the Devastators, who serve the Sacred King of Paradox himself. In Rachel’s vision of the future, there are primarily two human empires out there, one centered on Old Earth and the other on the world known as Paradox. Where the former is ruled under a regular old government, the latter is ruled by a nobility presided over by a Sacred King. There are some really fantastic alien races as well, but not too many and the larger part of the novel deals with the human interactions.
Anyways, as I was saying, Devi has fought several missions as a mercenary for the Paradoxian Empire and in that time she has gained quite a reputation. As someone who has always desired to be the best, and to fight with the best, she has set her sights quite high and since the Devastators are the absolute best armoured unit out there in the galaxy, she wants to be one. Its the pinnacle of all her dreams. I’ll be honest, if there’s one type of anime I love and enjoy, its mecha anime, stuff like Voltron, Gundam SEED, Gundam 00, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. And I’m a fan of the Space Marines from the Warhammer 40,000 setting as well and the Terran Marines from StarCraft, so power armoured troop fiction is something I enjoy a lot. And in Devi, I have a really fun character who gives me everything I want from this kind of fiction. She is strong, she is engaging, she dominates all her scenes, Rachel’s voice with her is excellent and above all else, she totally kicks ass.
If you are looking one example of a science fiction novel that is packed full of fun adventures and light-hearted characters framed within a galactically-dire plot, then Fortune’s Pawn is what you should be reading. Just as Rachel’s Eli Monpress novels are light-hearted adventure fantasy, this book is a light-hearted adventure space opera. I cannot stress those elements enough, because they inform everything that happens here a great deal. The novel has a pacing to match its characters and its premise. It flows along really quick and never gets bogged down in extraneous detail.
The action scenes, of which there are quite a few, are also all excellent. Power armour combat is not the easiest to write, something I’m painfully aware of from personal experience, but Rachel makes the choreography seem really easy. Devi owns a very special kind of power armour, Verdemont Knight-class, which is the absolute best armour anyone can buy, outside of the Devastators. Rachel gives the armour a personality of its own, with a rich backstory. It is custom-made, is named Lady Gray, and has some really cool specialized features. For a power armour-phile (amateur at best, I assure you), this was cool on so many levels. It is something I identify with since in some of the fiction I’ve attempted over the years, I’ve done the same, naming a character’s weapons and armour. In fantasy, we often see that great weapons and great suits of armour have a personality of their own. The same holds true here for Devi’s wargear. And in that very tradition, Devi names her weapons too, Sasha the anti-armour pistol and Mia the plasma shotgun. It creates an instant connection between the character and the reader, and it also speaks to the world-building that is present here.
Speaking of which, I touched on the fact that there are a limited number of alien species in this setting. There are the bird-like aeon, there are the war-like brutes called the xith’cal, and the mysterious lelgis, about whom very little is known outside of the fact that they are energy-based beings. So we know that there is a lot of diversity in this setting. Rachel keeps things from getting overburdened while also giving the reader plenty of tangible things to latch on to. I liked the differences in the aliens. Each of them has a clearly-defined role in the setting, and they all contribute to the narrative in one way or another. The xith’cal more so than the other two, since they are the major antagonists throughout the novel and they make for some great opponents against Devi and Cotter, the two armour operators contracted by the Captain of the Glorious Fool as the ship’s security. There’s something very primal about the xith’cal that reminds me of Warhammer 40,000 Orks which in and of itself not that surprising since Rachel has mentioned before that she’s taken a bit of an inspiration from the setting for this novel, such as the Paradoxian Empire and its Sacred King, among others.
Of course, another strong point of the novel is that there are so many fun characters in it. There’s Brian Caldswell, Captain of the Glorious Fool. Ren, Caldswell’s daughter. Rupert, his cook and babysitter. Mabel, the ship’s engineer. Cotter. Basil, the aeon who is also the ship’s navigator. Hyrek, a xith’cal who is ship’s medic and often makes for some really amusing and laugh-out-loud moments. And then there’s Novascape Starchild, Nova for short, who is the ship’s sensors operator and has a really interesting backstory as the daughter of a man who runs a galactic nature-and-peace cult.
Each character has a specific place in the narrative, helping to move the story along in their own little way. Some, like Cotter and Caldswell and Rupert get a lot of screen-time, but Rachel doesn’t ignore any of the others. She lets them all have their day(s) in the sun. Its great to see this entire crew interacting with each other. Its even better to see their backstories unfold bit by bit. Even a character like Cotter who I found distasteful from the get go but had really warmed to by the end of the book.
The adventures in the novel end up having some really big consequences, in the classic vein of space opera novels, and it was thrilling to see all of it unfold. Rachel writes some really tense scenes when she wants to and there’s a very appropriate and deep feeling of mystery in the narrative, which kept me hooked right on to the last page, especially given the big twists at the end which lead to a big status quo change for Devi.
Excellent, excellent stuff.
And finally, because it is so integral to the plot, there is also a fair bit of romance here, between Devi and Rupert. At times, the romance comes across as “easy” in that romance is easy in urban fantasy novels, but the important thing is that it isn’t as cheesy. Easy, but not cheesy. The first two Eli Monpress have a very “distant” and “peripheral” romance between the two lead characters. In comparison, the romance between Devi and Rupert here is much more passionate. Given how… serious SF novels tend to be today, as a norm, its great to see that we can have some personal time for the characters. Its natural, and it doesn’t strike as false in any way. And its not a matter of convenience either, it evolves and it directly impacts the narrative in the second half of the book.
So yeah, for me, Fortune’s Pawn was a hit novel on a lot of levels. If there are any criticisms, then they are that some of the more minor characters like Nova and Ren could have used more development, and that we got to find out more about the Paradoxian Empire, or Devi’s mercenary days with the Blackbirds company. That’s really it. Minor stuff.