After hearing about it on the Geek and Sundry book club Vaginal Fantasy (sci-fi and fantasy romance is the theme), I picked up Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach. It’s a science fiction pick, which I love since the book club tends to focus more on fantasy and supernatural fiction. I guess it’s hard to find a good sci-fi romance (though if you’re interested, I highly recommend Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace/Sirantha Jax series).
I am very happy I picked up this book. The writing soars above that in most other romance novels, and the emphasis is much more on sci-fi than the romance. In fact, the relationship is mostly flirtation and just toyed with between the rest of the action, in a realistic way.
You fall in love with the book’s heroine much harder than you do with the love interest or the relationship between the two of them. In fact, the love interest is more an intriguing part of the plot than your typical dashing, romantic hero. And that’s a good thing.
The Kick-Ass Protagonist
Fortune’s Pawn follows 27-year-old soldier Deviana Morris, whose dream is to be a Devastator — one of the king’s personal guard. She’s proven herself as a warrior in the military and guard, but she doesn’t have the experience needed to be a Devastator yet. When she hears that serving a year aboard the infamous Glorious Fool ship in space is enough to turn the heads of the Devastators, she jumps at the chance to get ahead.
Deviana is an interesting mix of traits. For a romance novel, she’s refreshingly realistic. She’s a fighter first and foremost, her confidence comes from more than just her training and experience; she also has a specially-designed suit of armor and weapons that are like a second skin to her. (She even named them all.) Because they empower and enable her in combat, she places a lot of value on them.
But what’s really interesting is her loyalty to her king. Like some others on her planet, she has an almost religious devotion to him. When she looks toward the castle, she bows her head in reverence. It’s not a personality trait you see a lot in your main characters, especially in sci-fi. I’m more used to corrupt governments and freedom fighters, I guess — which makes Deviana a refreshing change. It’s almost like you don’t have to agree with her on everything to get behind her.
In any case, Deviana Morris knows how to take care of herself. She’s sarcastic. She drinks a lot and can hold her liquor — most of the time. She enjoys getting laid but doesn’t bother with long-term relationships in her line of work, and she seems perfectly content with that. On the other hand, if a guy treats her with disrespect — that includes hitting on her at work or giving her unwanted attention — she knows how to handle herself to get them to stop. (It’s a soldier/mercenary thing.) She acts fast in combat and is extremely skilled. She’s also kind-hearted enough to try to understand people who are different than her, whether it’s a member of an alien species she used to kill or a strange space hippie she has to bunk with. I liked her a lot.
There was a time, many moons ago, when I preferred science fiction that focused on humans and nothing else. Except maybe robots. But no aliens, please. I guess it’s because I started my love affair with Frank Herbert’s Dune series in middle school and took it from there; his fiction does not include alien species. I kind of liked not having to worry about giggling to myself over some weird creature with two heads that was supposed to be from another planet.
But I was so wrong. At some point, I got into Star Trek and Doctor Who and Mass Effect and all kinds of other fiction that includes aliens, and I fell in love with it. The idea of life that’s unlike ours offers so much potential, and when I brainstormed my own science fiction, I loved coming up with other races, inspired as much by fantasy creatures as by aliens in sci-fi.
Fortune’s Pawn has aliens, and Bach writes them very well. You have the people-eating xith’cal, towering over humans and covered in scales. You can an aeon pilot — that’s a bird-like alien — who dislikes Morris for being a typical human. You also have a strange human girl, the captain’s daughter, who seems to have some sort of “pet” alien that can move swiftly and defeat anything that comes near it. I won’t give anything away there.
Although the novel is too short to really flesh out the alien cultures, you get a good sense of their appearances, lifestyles, personalities, and reputations. It’s always interesting to see other races presented from someone else’s perspective. Hints of racism and generalizing are there, from the humans as well as the various alien species. Sometimes it’s funny. And sometimes the protagonist’s stereotypes are turned on their head, which is fantastic. I love how true-to-life all of this feels, with Morris being subject to racism as much as any other character, but all of them ultimately getting along aboard the ship just fine in the end.
Thriller, Mystery, Action Adventure…
Fortune’s Pawn may be science fiction romance at first glance, but it has a lot of surprise elements from other genres that make it engaging. First, there’s tons of action. You can expect that considering Deviana is serving aboard a spaceship known for getting into trouble at every turn.
However, by the halfway point, the book adds a thriller-type mystery to the mix. While out planet-side trying to locate her captain, Deviana runs into an invisible monster in the jungle and attempts to fight it, only to find that her armor’s feed is getting fuzzy — and then she’s knocked out. When she comes to, she discovers that some of her armor’s auto-recording has been deleted, and this seems to be deliberate. Naturally, she starts digging around to find out what happened and discovers things about the rest of the Glorious Fool crew that put everything in a new perspective.
I really enjoyed the genre mash-up here, although I don’t even know if I’d call it that. It feels very sci-fi the whole time — just with much more intrigue than I expected from a romance novel.
In fact, the romance between Deviana and the ship’s mysterious cook, Rupert, is only toyed with for most of the book. There’s a little silly push and pull there — Rupert says he’s too dangerous for Deviana to be around, which turns out to be part of the book’s main mystery plot — but I enjoyed it. While Deviana is initially interested in Rupert for his looks, she soon learns more strange things about him, and the dynamic of their relationship shifts. She spends a lot of time interested in him because he’s hiding something; at one point, she even says her crush is gone as she investigates. (Of course, that is blown out the window after they sleep together.)
Although I do enjoy romance and was expecting some sexy times from the book, I liked the balance in Fortune’s Pawn. The sci-fi world-building and intrigue of the story was so arresting, it felt right that the romance was secondary.
Which brings me to the romance. I have to admit that I was not all that into Rupert. First, I’m not crazy about his name — it doesn’t sound very sci-fi or sexy, nothing against Ruperts. Second, while he turned out to be a well-rounded character (to say the least), at first he seemed like little more than eye candy to Devi. That’s never interesting to me. I like guys with a lot of personality, which is surprisingly hard to find in romance. (I guess guys in books don’t like to talk about their dark pasts very much, and that’s supposed to be sexy or something.)
The good news for romance readers is that Rupert is not a traditional alpha male. I appreciated that he is the ship’s cook and has a soft, gentlemanly nature — not a testosterone type. In fact, the character in the novel you can characterize as being the “testosterone” guy (who hits on Deviana early on) ends up being a platonic friend who is considered a little big and dumb. The problem with Rupert is that’s he’s just a little boring — at least until you learn there’s more to him than initially caught Devi’s eye.
I haven’t enjoyed a science fiction romance novel this much since Grimspace. I really believe it all hinges on how lovely and believable the protagonist is. She has a more exciting life than we do, but you can still relate to her. You root for her. It makes the best kind of sci-fi.