Fortune’s Pawn is the story of a talented space mercenary who is addicted to adrenaline, drinks like a fish, sleeps around, and wants nothing more than to become a member of the elite force known as the Devastators.
Thanks to raw talent, a never-ending thirst for action, and a rare, custom-built set of combat armor, this mercenary has successfully climbed the ranks and now has nowhere else to go but a boring desk job. Then, a dangerous and lucrative assignment comes along. It may just prove to be the final stepping stone to that ambitious dream career with the Devastators, so the mercenary drops everything and joins the group of armored badasses applying for the job.
Her name is Devi.
See what Rachel Bach did there? Devi Morris, the heroine of Fortune’s Pawn, is a young woman who, aside from gender, is a five o’clock shadow and a buzz cut away from the platonic ideal of the Manly Man Space Marine. She’s violent and blunt. She wants to be in charge. She kicks ass and takes names. And chews bubblegum. Or something like that—I’m a bit vague on the clichés there.
But! There is a second major aspect to this novel: yes, it successfully throws a major curve in traditional (read: antiquated) SF gender roles, but it also shows Devi as a real woman with (gasp) feelings. There is romance, and not just a little bit of side-plot romance either. This is full-on, admiring-the-male-lead’s-abs-and-dreaming-about-running-fingers-through-his-gorgeous-shiny-hair romance, with a side of Forbidden Love thrown in for good measure.
You see, one day in 2011, Rachel Bach (who is really Rachel Aaron, author of five successful Eli Monpress fantasy novels) felt like reading an “action-packed space romance.” Since there wasn’t one readily available, she decided to write it herself. As she puts it in the interview that’s included at the back of this book, with characteristic enthusiasm: “This is why being a writer is awesome!”
“Action-packed space romance” sums up Fortune’s Pawn just about perfectly. The novel is completely unapologetic about incorporating all three of its aspects equally. It’s a cocktail: one part space opera, one part violent space armor combat, and one part romance. Shake and stir. You cannot extricate one element from the end result.
The risk a novel like this one runs is, of course, that some readers may be turned off by one of those elements. For some, Fortune’s Pawn may feel like a bridge between genres, but others may scream “too many plasma guns!” or “girl cooties!” and run back to the other side. I make no judgment and merely wish to present Fortune’s Pawn for what it is; if you like your tequila neat, don’t order a margarita.
Blending genres is of course nothing new, and neither is science fiction romance. Fortune’s Pawn just struck me as a novel that pushes the idea a bit further, to the point where it may wander out of the comfort zone of people who don’t read outside of their preferred genres much. To them, I say: don’t be scared. Take a look at the other side of the bridge. Your beloved will still be there when you get back.
But, back to the actual novel. Like the novels the author wrote as Rachel Aaron, Fortune’s Pawn has its upsides and downsides. The author has a high-energy, conversational writing style that’s somehow infectious in its enthusiasm. It’s full of little touches of humor. The dialogue flows well and reads smoothly. Somehow, Rachel Bach’s prose sounds like she just has a lot of fun writing.
Her plotting is typically energetic too. Like the Eli Monpress novels, this is another fast-paced story that doesn’t pause for breath very often. Fortune’s Pawn bounces from action-packed combat scenes to romantic encounters and back. When there is a slow moment, the chatty writing style pulls you right through until Devi is either fighting, bickering or flirting again.
Unfortunately, the breeziness that makes the novel so much fun to read occasionally makes certain parts of it feel a bit, well, silly. Devi’s habit of naming her weapons and armor (the two guns, Mia and Sasha, her plasma-blade Phoebe, and her armor Lady Gray) was initially fun but got annoying after a while. The world-building feels a bit cartoonish, with two competing human empires (Terran and Paradoxian) and a few alien races, including one that basically looks like giant lizards and another like giant birds.
Neither alien race likes humans much (one actually treats them as, well, food) but somehow a representative of each is working on the tiny trade ship Devi ends up working on. Another member of the crew is Novascape Starchild (“call me Nova”), who is ridiculously hippy-dippy (as you might guess from her name) and who introduces an unexpected plot element that made it even harder to really take this fictional universe seriously.
And then, of course, there’s Rupert, the gorgeous and mysterious cook/bartender with beautiful long hair and the body of a Greek god, who becomes Devi’s love interest. I apologize in advance to anyone who bears this name, but—Rupert? Really? I think of animated teddy bears when I see that name (and maybe of that one Survivor contestant who always wears tie-dyed shirts) but I just couldn’t connect that name to the way the character was described.
All of this is probably nitpicking. In the end, Fortune’s Pawn is a fun, if slight, read. If the same trend ends up happening in this series as in the author’s fantasy series, the hint of darkness that appears towards the end of the novel will continue to develop as the story continues. Still, no one will accuse Rachel Aaron/Bach of high literature, and that’s fine. That’s not the point of a novel like Fortune’s Pawn, anyway.
In terms of depth, Fortune’s Pawn is more or less on the opposite end of the scale from Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (my review), another recent Orbit novel that does interesting things with gender in SF, but what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in entertainment value. If you’re in the mood for action-packed space romance, Fortune’s Pawn will provide a few hours of fun.