Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach: An interesting premise that never gets off the ground
Devi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day - but not just yet.This premise caught my interest because I've never read a military sci-fi novel about a merc serving on a ship before, cargo or otherwise. Typically, when I do read mil SF, its about soldiers or naval officers, so I was willing to give this book a read and before I even finished it, I wish I hadn't. While the idea of a tough female merc serving as a guard on a cargo ship that acts as a magnet for trouble was intriguing, the plot itself was a major letdown.
That is, until she just gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn’t misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years everywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she’s found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn’t give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle.
The single biggest problem, at least to me, was the romance subplot between Devi and Rupert, the Glorious Fool's cook. I've nothing against romance between characters and indeed, you have to have it in order to avoid having a dry story, but the problem with this one is that it was just bad. Like romance novel bad. In fact, there were at least two points where I actually stopped and wonder if Fortune's Pawn wasn't, in fact, a military science fiction romance hybrid. What's funny is that my concerns were quickly dispelled by how tepid and brief the one sex scene in the book is. I've seen sex scenes in PG13 movies that were more explicit than in Fortune's Pawn. But what I didn't like the most about the romance in the book was how it turned Devi into a hormonal teenager. Every time Rupert rebuffs her and after she gets chewed out by Caldswell, the Glorious Fool's captain, she becomes this self-pitying crybaby.
Another problem were the characters themselves. Aside from Devi and Rupert, every other character in the book were flat and generic. One character, Nova, should have been fascinating because she possessed what basically amounted to The Force, but her only characterization was as a space hippie. She belonged to a cult that believed that living on planets was wrong and prevented people from "becoming one with the universe". Caldswell should have been interesting after Devi discovers that he has a King's Warrant that allows him unprecedented authority, up to and including being able to override control over her armor and erasing video from Final Word Log, a black box like device embedded in her back. Devi states that only a certain few people are able to alter the latter legally. Unfortunately, the only time Caldswell actually shows up is when he's tearing Devi a new asshole, so that's a missed opportunity.
And to be honest? Rupert's not very interesting either. There's an air of mystery about him, especially after he's able to fire Devi's pistol three times without breaking his arms (like it would with a normal human), and other feats. Unfortunately, not even the revelation that's some sort of symbiotic-bonded supersoldier killing machine can save him from being just plain dull. Devi's pretty dull too. Aside from her ambition and teenage crush on Rupert, there's nothing there.
The lack of world building doesn't help either. We know that humans are divided into two groups, the Terran Federation and Paradox (Kingdom? Empire? I can't remember). We know that there are at least three alien races: the reptilian Xith'cal, the avian Aeons, and the jellyfish like Lelgis. Beyond that, we learn very little. I think Rachel Bach missed a great chance at building the Paradox Universe up and it hurts the story as a result.
One thing that really bugged me was Devi's weapon loadout. For a battle hardened merc, she doesn't carry much hardware. She's got a plasma shotgun she calls Mia that must have a AA battery for a power supply because she only ever gets a limited number of shots off before it goes dead. Her main weapon is a pistol named Sasha that fires AP rounds capable of easily tearing through powered armor. Yup, she goes into battles with, pistol blazing. She rounds out her weaponry with a phosphorus coated blade named Phoebe that burns for 80 seconds with ignited. After that, it becomes brittle and worthless. It's astounding that she's survived as long as she has with two crappy weapons and a pistol. More ridiculous is that Cotter, her partner on the Glorious Fool, is armed with...a regular shotgun and an ax. Yeah.
Finally, the ending left me unsatisfied. The Fool is attacked by a mysterious man named Brenton, his mercs and shockingly, two of those supersoldiers. Devi is captured and Brenton uses his pseudo-Jedi to interrogate her before Rupert shows up and saves the day. The battle isn't terrible and has some interesting bits, like Devi gaining some kind of anti-Force death touch, and Brenton revealing that he has one of those supersoldier symbiotes too, but there's not a lot of detail to the action. This is disappointing because it should have been brimming with action, since it was the climax of the book. Anyways, Devi is badly injured in the fight and while being put back together, Rupert uses Caldswell's psychic daughter to erase Devi's memories of the battle, his secret, and other incriminating evidence. He does this largely because the alternative is death because Caldswell doesn't like having someone outside of his circle knowing so much. Rupert goes further and has Ren (the daughter) use the shining to make Devi hate him, so that she doesn't continue to pine for him (or the fjords), which is what led to her finding his secret out. So the story ends with Devi recovering from her injuries, not remembering the previous battle and a lot more and being physically repulsed every time she sees Rupert, which considering that he's the ship's cook, is probably going to be problematic in the future. Like, how is Devi going to eat if even glancing at the cook makes her want to vomit?
In the end, Fortune's Pawn had an interesting premise, but the plot, uninteresting characters, a bad romance subplot, unremarkable battles, and a so-so ending all contributed to drag the book down. Would I read the second book in the trilogy, Honor's Knight? I doubt it. Unfortunately, the ending didn't provide enough meat to make me want to continue on. I don't know if this book is bad because it was Rachel Bach's first venture into mil-sf or if it's just bad.