Review: “Fortune’s Pawn” by Rachel Bach

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When I picked up Fortune’s Pawn, I had a half-baked sort of expectation that this would be a book about a hardass female space-merc that took no shit and punched a lot of baddies in the face. (Or various alien appendages) And while Fortune’s protagonist, Devi Morris, certainly has both of these qualities in spades, what I wasn’t expecting was for this book to be so much damn fun.

Honestly, I’ve been a little burnt out on sci-fi lately. With the exception of some recent Octavia Butler books, it seems like every time I wanted to take off into space and explore the galaxy, I was doomed to an endless loop of dull exposition and every character Telling me exactly how they felt. (Also a weird obsession with using the term “orb” to mean “eye”, something I haven’t done since my teenage years on forum RPGs; seriously why isn’t this term dead yet) It’s exhausting. Do I really need to know the entire technological history behind a small space colony? Do I really need to suffer through an entire chapter’s worth of flashbacks just so the author can fill me in on the history of a strange artifact the crew of their ship has just found? (This is a real thing that happened in a book I read recently) Do I really need to be fed a lot of technobabble to tell me how the Special Whatsit on the main character’s wrist gets ahold of his mother when he’s feeling socially inept?

The short answer is NO, I DON’T.

And yes, I realize saying this will probably cause some readers to cackle, point, and say “See! This is why girls are no good at sci-fi, they don’t want to know how things work!” First, deposit yourself directly into the trashcan where you belong. Second, I have absolutely no problem with backstories, histories, and technological explanations in my books. What I have a problem with is that, for some reason, folks think that Show, Don’t Tell doesn’t apply to science-fiction. You get to be lazy about the rules in this genre because isn’t the hardcore technobabble what everyone wants? Aren’t the readers all dudes who don’t understand emotions, therefore we have to take them by the hand and lead them through the emotions our characters are having, step-by-step? You’re just giving the audience what they’ve asked for!! …right?

As someone who was raised with the belief that the only good sci-fi was “hardcore” sci-fi written by old men, I have recently been working hard to divest myself from that outdated notion. And with Fortune’s Pawn, my choice to pursue sci-fi written exclusively by women has most certainly paid off.

While I was expecting Devi to be a badass, what I wasn’t expecting was for her to be interesting. I liked her straight away, and not just because she was all out of bubblegum. The book opens up with her bedding a friend with benefits, then getting a little annoyed with him as he tries to bring feelings into the situation. Cue me cheering because holy shit, how many female protagonists do we get to see who don’t give a shit about searching for “the one” or whatever? Give me the lady equivalent of James Bond any day. Better yet, Devi is not only touching this friend cause he’s sexy, but she’s desperately ambitious and wants him to help her get into the top-tier of All Space Badasses anywhere, an order called the Devastators. A woman with sexual agency and all-consuming ambition based solely on what makes her happy? brb, squeeing forever.

I thought this book was going to just be a series of Devi being Unable to Understand Feelings and punching things a lot–which I was fine with–but it was so much more than that. The plot twists were actually, y’know, interesting and caught me off-guard. What I was also not expecting is that this is essentially a space romance. Yes, there is a major and propels-most-of-the-book romance in Fortune’s Pawn, and I fucking loved it. For one thing, the guy Devi falls in love with is incredibly hot. I want to do bad/good things to that man. For another, the push-pull between them was truly enjoyable. I was worried that Devi’s love interest would fall into the endless abyss of Emotionally Abusive Man Masquerading as Misunderstood Genius or whatever, but nope! Devi’s relationship may not be a strictly healthy one, per se, but it’s not abusive. Phew!

Oh, and did I mention that Devi beats the shit out of a knucklehead catcaller who never again dares to speak to her so disrespectfully? YEssssss 😍

From a character standpoint, it was enjoyable to watch Devi go from pigheaded-pigeonholer-of-everyone-and-everything to someone who actually gave herself a chance to see people as more than just stereotypes. The world and the people in it challenged her, and watching her grow was a delight. (It also happens so subtly that you might miss it if you’re not looking!) Even better, Bach goes out of her way to avoid the time-old sci-fi tradition of making all members of an alien species exactly the same as each other. (Looking at you, Star Trek and Mass Effect) Cultural and societal traditions of different races are presented as important, but not all-consuming. I also liked how sometimes the perception of a race’s culture informed how others acted towards them, just like it does in real life.

I will say that, from a critical and feminist standpoint, the ending of Fortune’s Pawn is a little…well, murky. (No spoilers are nigh, don’t worry.) Let me preface this statement with the fact that I enjoyed the ending, but there is a situation in which Devi has her agency removed. I don’t believe the content is triggering, (though of course that is a subjective experience) but there is definitely a conversation to be had around tough, badass women having their agency removed at critical moments. Again, I liked the ending and I thought it felt as natural as something like that can. But I would feel remiss for not mentioning that there are problematic elements to it. The fact that this is literally the only time in the book that I had an issue with? Wow.

In closing, while I was definitely hooked from the start, the moment that really made me realize what a special and precious experience Fortune’s Pawn is was when I sat down on my bed and read it for three hours straight. I didn’t want to eat. (Even though I was hungry) I didn’t want to get up and use the bathroom. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I barely even wanted to pet one of my three cats because that would have taken valuable time away from me reading to find out What Happened Next. When I say this, I want you to understand the fullness of it: Not since reading Harry Potter as a teen have I wanted so desperately to just sit and read something. There have been books here on the blog that I’ve had a lot of fun with recently, and which have been enjoyable reads, but none of them have made me crave them like Fortune’s Pawn did. Truly, I couldn’t put it down.

Every year it seems like it gets more and more difficult for me to lose myself in books; either because of me being busy/tired/depressed/whatever, or because of a downturn in quality coupled with an upturn in volume. So I truly cannot convey how precious my experience with Fortune’s Pawn was. This is also one of the MANY reasons why I recommend it so highly. GO READ THIS BOOK. I MEAN IT.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

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