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Fortune's Pawn (Paradox Series) by Rachel Bach
Review by Ernest Lilley
Orbit Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0316221112
Date: 05 November 2013 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Blog / Show Official Info /

Devi Morris likes guys well enough, when she's not fighting aliens and space pirates in her custom made powered armor, but when she signs onto the Glorious Fool as security, she expects the most exciting thing she'll encounter is flesh eating lizards. She does not expect to wind up facing a galactic threat that has the power to reduce worlds to rubble. To say nothing about the cook.

Devi Morris is a kick-butt kind of girl, but her biological clock is ticking as she closes in on the big three-oh. She's not looking to settle down and raise a brood of hell-raisers though, she's looking at the end of her meteoric rise as a powered armor mercenary in an elite outfit. She's gone as far as she can go without getting a desk job, and that's the last thing she wants. What she really wants is a shot at joining her King's ultra-elite troops, the Devastators. Unfortunately, even her resume as a one woman blitzkrieg won't get her in until she's got more seasoning, so she hits up her friend Anthony, who's worked with the elite unit, to tell her how to hack the requirements.

Since she won't be sensible and settle down with him for a safe if boring ever after, he tells her to sign on for a tour as security for a trading vessel for a year or so and the Devastators will probably be willing to admit she's ready. Not just any trader, but the Glorious Fool, Brian Caldswell's scarred hulk of a ship. The one that goes through security staff like most vessels go through reaction mass. For some reason the King's forces keep a very close eye on the Glorious Fool.

Normally, no action-hungry merc would consider babysitting cargo, but she trusts Anthony's intel, and drags her custom-made powered armor up to the loading dock where Caldswell is interviewing applicants. Her record may not qualify her for the Devastators yet, but it makes for the shortest interview of her career and she finds herself signed on as half the security detail, and if the base pay isn't all that hot, the hazard pay per incident, might leave her comfortably well off, if not in one piece.

The other half of the team is Cotter, a hulking he-man whose armor dwarfs Devi's suit and whose passion is divided between swinging a thousand pound battle axe and telling stories about himself. He's also a leering jerk, but Devi knows how to handle these things, and putting him on his back for an intimate conversation about who's boss isn't much of a challenge.

The crew of the Glorious Fool is the classic mix of scruffy types these sorts of ships attract. The pilot and second-in-command is an avian alien (think Big Bird with an attitude), the sensor tech is from a cultist space station where they teach oneness with the universe and a few nifty psionic skills, the engineer is a friendly tech absorbed gal who divides her affection between her cat and her engines, and the ship's doc is a reformed flesh eating lizard from one of the races (the xith'cal) that has a shoot-on-site grudge with the captain. There's also the Captain's daughter, who sits in the ship's lounge playing a nonstop game of chess from both sides but never makes eye contact with anyone, which is just a little creepy.

"...I caught sight of the man behind the girl and everything else became superfluous. Now this, this was more like it. The man was gorgeous. He was tall and pale, but beautifully so, with shoulder-blade-length black hair tied at his neck. His eyes were a lovely bright blue under dark eyebrows, and his mouth looked quick to smile. He was wearing a black suit, not the ones they wore in Kingston with the wide lapels, but the old-fashioned Terran kind with the high collar that I'd always considered dashing...I could see enough of his posture to know that he had some military training. Combine that with his long-fingered hands and broad, sloping shoulders and I was suddenly feeling much, much better about this job."
And then there's the cook.

Rupert, the cook, who it turns out is way more than a cook, unless you're talking about Steven Segal in Under Seige, except likeable, and even then raised to a power of about ten, has secrets to keep. In fact, and no surprise, the entire ship has secrets that Devi isn't supposed to worry her mercenary little head about, but the initiative that makes her so good at what she does also gets her closer to the truth about what the Glorious Fool is up to than she’s supposed to.

Normally, the captain has a simple policy for dealing with this sort of thing, but he's taken a liking to her, or at least her ability to repel the alien boarding parties that seem to spring up around him, so he's reluctant to just kill her off. And despite Rupert's cool exterior and unflappable focus, Devi's gotten to him as much as he's gotten to her. Sure, our gal likes a steady diet of hunks to jump, but Rupert's gotten under her skin in a big way from the start, and that's going to make things really complicated for both of them.

When the ship finds an apparently dead xith'cal warship, Devi and Cotton are sent aboard to do recon, but when it turns out the ship isn't all that dead, Devi has to fight her way out, but gets trapped by on overwhelming number of the aliens. She's rescued at the last minute by a mysterious black alien that brushes the monsters aside with apparent ease and which she's seen once before, when she went off to recover the Captain when they'd lost contact. That time she'd had to fight off an invisible creature that nobody seemed to believe had existed, and the Captain had taken measures to make sure she didn't see the alien either, except that he didn't count on her tenacity. This time there was no question about whether or not she could see her rescuer, who seems oddly familiar, unless the overdose of combat stims that were keeping her alive despite major wounds were making her hallucinate.

It turns out that Devi isn't the only one who wants to know what's going on aboard the Glorious Fool, and some of the ones that do are willing to play rough. Considering what Devi's gone through already it would take some doing to up the ante, but...

The story is a bit overloaded with SF cliches. I'm willing to grant authors warp gates, because the alternative pretty much makes interstellar conflict/commerce impossible, but I wish authors would give up their dependence on artificial gravity, which evidently works better with an atmosphere than in vacuum, one of the many bits that made me set my rose-colored space visor to maximum density. Not to mention, "...the Fool's main cannon fired with a rumble I felt through my stabilizers. Outside, other cannons fired faintly in response..." But maybe I'm just picky.

It does seem that a critical read by someone versed in the hard stuff could have helped Bach tighten up the tech and make the book accessible to a wider audience. If you'd like to take a look at the subject done right, I whole-heartedly recommend James S.A. Corey's second book in The Expanse series: Caliban's War. It's got a lot of the same elements, a small ship with an offbeat crew, a good looking gal with powered space armor, and even a nearly unkillable genetically modified alien or two. But it doesn't cop out when it comes to stepping up to what is and isn't possible in space-tech. Nor are the characters paper cutouts of action heroes. Devi could do worse than getting some tips from Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper.

Ironically Corey's book (which is really the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is not only an Orbit title as well, but the third book in the series, Abaddon's Gate, includes the first chapter of Fortune's Pawn as an extra.

Fortune's Pawn is a wild page turner of a space opera and the first non-fantasy title from Rachel Bach. It's not hard-SF by any means, and if you’re not going to be satisfied with a fast paced mix of space marine mayhem and romance, you probably won't be happy with it. On the other hand, I really want to know what happens to Devi and her star-crossed cook next, so I'll be making myself some hot space cocoa and kicking back with book two of the series. Knight's Honor, as soon as it comes out.

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