Review: FORTUNE’S PAWN, by Rachel Bach (Paradox #1)

Is it possible to enjoy a book for the intriguing background it depicts, and for the adventure and mystery at the core of its story, and at the same time to be extremely irritated with it for some annoying characterization choices?  Yes, it is, if that book is Fortune’s Pawn.  But let’s start with the details I did enjoy, first.

The beginning of the story is immediately captivating: Deviana Morris is a mercenary, a highly-skilled one, working out of her custom-made powered armor toward the goal of enlisting with the Paradoxian Kingdom’s elite corps, the Devastators. Devi is focused and determined, and when she understands that her latest posting will not advance her further toward the Devastators, she choses a lateral career move: on the advice of a friend, she finds work as security on Captain Caldswell’s Glorious Fool, a ship with a bad name, because its security personnel does not last long – Caldswell seems to go through hired mercenaries as if they were disposable tissues.

Once she’s enlisted by Caldswell – and immediately proceeds to put her fellow mercenary Cotter in his place – she starts having second thoughts about the posting, one that seems a bit dull by her standards, until things start to happen, and the mysteries pop up one after the other.  The Glorious Fool‘s crew is a peculiar mix: apart from the captain, and his silent daughter Ren – a girl who sports autistic-like behavior but is much, much creepier than that – there are an avian first officer with the temper of an old curmudgeon; a nice but distant chief engineer who’s also the captain’s sister-in-law;   Nova, a tech who’s into new-new-age rituals in a major way; a reptilian doctor, from a species that is otherwise regarded as ferociously dangerous; and Rupert the cook.  I’ll come back to this guy in a little while…

This premise caught my attention in no time at all: a woman working – and excelling – at a traditional male job, and doing so with a suit of powered armor, to boot.  I enjoyed immensely the descriptions of the Lady Grey, Devi’s suit, and its various weapons, all of them graced with female names.  In Devi’s mind the Lady is a person more than a collection of parts; a trusted companion more than a tool, and the mercenary cares about it more deeply than she does for her team-mates.  Morris comes across as a mix between Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Aeryn Sun all rolled into one and she lets nothing and no one interfere with her ultimate goal: she might even look obsessed at times, and extremely self-centered, but this is part of her personality and what makes her intriguing, and different from the usual mold of the proverbial ass-kicking heroine.

As she starts to integrate with the crew of the Glorious Fool, Devi notices some oddities in their behavior, and her curiosity is aroused beyond what would be safe for her plan of fulfilling her year-long commitment to Caldswell and his eventual backing to a post with the Devastators, so that she keeps digging, until a few outlandish – and possibly dangerous – truths start making themselves plain. The last part of the story is a crescendo of conflicting revelations and half-perceived clues that point to a possible galaxy-wide conspiracy, and much more; heated battles, alien mysteries and a touch of black-ops politics all contribute to create a riveting background for which this first volume in the series represents only the first act. For this reason alone I know I will continue reading, even though some narrative choices went against my tastes (and the character’s outline) in a major way – namely the romantic element.

Devi Morris is presented from page one as a very independent, very strong-willed person; one who knows very clearly what she wants and how to get it; one who dismisses sentimental entanglements because they go against her final objective.  The first time we see her, she’s enjoying a brief fling with her friend-with-benefits Anthony, and she politely but firmly turns down his offer for a stable relationship.  More than once, Devi reminds us that “home and hearth” are not what she wants, and that she’s used to mercenary-style liaisons, i.e. brief affairs between battles, with the awareness that death is always around the corner.

But once Devi sets eyes on the Glorious Fool‘s cook Rupert, on his “piercing blue eyes” and “silky black hair”, all of the above flies out the nearest airlock, never to return. At first it seems like a purely physical interest, one that could go well with Devi’s previous behavioral patterns, but when the man keeps gently (oh, so gently!) rebuking her advances, she becomes obsessed. Worse, Rupert is soon revealed as the holder of Big, Dark Secrets, and that only serves to fuel the mercenary’s infatuation even more. Worse still, once the two manage a heated night of passion, Devi discovers he’s the best lover she ever had, the most gentle and considerate, and of course the strongest.

So it’s instant, deep and abiding love and – surprise, surprise – it’s mutual.

I’m unable to avoid seeing this course of events as forced, and taking up much more space than necessary in the economy of the story. I can’t perceive any real chemistry between Devi and Rupert, except for what looks more like a hormonal reaction on her part –  and one more suited to a teenager than a battle-hardened soldier.  The whole scenario, in my opinion, robs her character of all the attributes that make her unique and that caught my attention at the beginning of the book, while the “crime” is compounded by two instances (not one, but two!) in which she’s saved from certain death by a mysterious creature: it’s as if the author were saying that yes, we have a strong, capable soldier here, but she’s still a woman, and she still needs to be saved – she still needs someone to carry her away in their oh-so-strong arms. Which defies the whole purpose of the character, in my book.

Speculative fiction requires its readers to suspend their disbelief, and we are more than happy to do that when it comes to faster-than-light engines, exotic alien forms, strange environments, and so on – just to quote a few – but no matter how outlandish the setting, people remain people and I like to see them behave and react in a believable, organic way, and not as trope-fueled puppets.  As I said, I will keep on reading the series because I’m curious about the unsolved mysteries that were presented here, but I’m afraid I will not be enjoying the main character as I did at the beginning – unless something changes in the next installments…

My Rating:

23 thoughts on “Review: FORTUNE’S PAWN, by Rachel Bach (Paradox #1)

  1. Oh too bad. I’ve actually read quite a few gushing reviews of this book, and I have a copy myself, but I can see the problem with the romance and some of the relationships. I am curious, and I do still want to check this out one of these days. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the book completely. Doesn’t seem that long since I read the series but I THINK some of the instant attraction is actually explained later on. But mostly it didn’t bother me because Devi was too busy being a bad ass for me to care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s why the insta-love did not ring true to me, because Devi is introduced as a bad-ass lady, and her hormone-driven infatuation for Rupert seemed out of character. But the rest of the story was fun, and I will be reading on, so that means something, I guess 🙂


  3. “but no matter how outlandish the setting, people remain people and I like to see them behave and react in a believable, organic way, and not as trope-fueled puppets.”

    True that!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ah, this totally brings back memories of my time with this trilogy. I can definitely see the romance being problematic and the issues with having to suspend disbelief, though. I think I would have been more critical of these if this had been a more serious endeavor but I mostly saw it as a pure popcorn read which probably helped me like it a lot more than I should have 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m quite ok with popcorn reads – we can’t be serious and grimdark and dramatic all the time, after all! – but still I like romantic entanglements to happen more organically. This does not mean I will not go on with the series, though. I *need* to know what happens next!!!! 😀


  5. I’ve heard so much about this book, so it’s too bad it didn’t pan out for you 😕 It’s hard to believe the protag is a “strong independent woman” if she keeps getting saved, instead of saving herself and her crew lol Most heroes/heroines get saved by coincidence once in a while, but twice in a book can start to feel like contrivance. I hope the next book works out much better for you friend!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. *crossing fingers* that Devi grows as a character and woman, in book II. I’m really enjoying an Elizabeth Moon military sci-fi right now about a woman who is a truly strong female ensign–and not a romance in sight. I’m hoping she stays true to her profession and strength because that makes for the best kind of read!

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Lol I don’t think you’ll regret it, esp if you’re really hankering for a strong female lead in military sf. I’m starting off with Once a Hero because a friend gave it to me, but I’m definitely planning to go back and read the rest of the series because this one is blowing me away. Anyway, better luck with your next read my friend!!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I do have the first in series, had it for some time. I will eventually read it – just for a fun popcorn read I think. It will be interesting to see what you make of the next one.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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