Paradox Series—Rachel Bach
When I'd first decided to leave the army and look for a private mercenary contract, my grandmother had warned me not to sign with any of the bargain companies. You couldn't trust people who treated life cheaply, she'd said, because they were the ones who'd sell you out for nothing. (Honor's Knight, 243)
"I see a bunch of cowards hiding behind us and saying their lives and happiness are worth more than ours because they've been alive a long time. That our deaths are justified because your lives are more important. But they're not. You might live in the oneness, but it doesn't belong to you."Fortune's Pawn was the main pick for Vaginal Fantasy during the month of March, and I loved it so much that I continued on and completed the trilogy—Fortune's Pawn, Honor's Knight, and Heaven's Queen. (It's a good thing I loved the main, because the alternate was campy in the most awful way.)
Foolish child, the lelgis hissed. You would destroy the infinite to save those who are already doomed to die?
"That's the thing about infinity," I said. "You can't destroy it and you can't control it." (Heaven's Queen, 320)
In Fortune's Pawn, we meet Devi Morris, a space mercenary who is trying to create her own path to joining the Devastators, the group on her home planet of Paradox that protect the Sacred King. Although it usually takes at least ten years to get to be a Devastator, she wants to expedite the process, so after a tip from a friend who works in the government, she joins a trade ship as security—her friend assures her that a stint on this ship is a quick way to join the Devastators. The ship, the Glorious Fool, has a reputation for bad luck, but that doesn't even come close to the real story. Plus there's a bit of romance along the way.
As we go, Devi encounters invisible monsters and black, scaly creatures the likes of which she's never even heard of before. She learns about symbionts, humans who have essentially had their DNA spliced with that of the xith'cal alien race. Spoiler alert: Rupert is a symbiont.
I loved the definition of Devi's armor, the suit of which she calls the Lady Gray. All of her individual weapons also have names. I basically pictured her as a female Iron Man. I appreciated how strong and no-nonsense she was. As a take-charge kind of lady myself, I felt like Devi was a kindred spirit...only like a thousand times more badass than I am.
I also felt really attached to all of the ancillary characters. Devi's roommate Nova reminded me of a space-age Luna Lovegood. Even though I knew there was something suspicious about Rupert and Caldswell, I still was on their side. In addition to the characters, I thought the world building was excellent. As some others in the Vaginal Fantasy forums suggested, it reminded me very much of Firefly, so I was on board with the world pretty much from the very beginning.
There was also a point where the ship's doctor Hyrek, one of the xith'cal aliens who most resemble lizards, responds to Devi's question about his gender. Hyrek tells her that xith'cal can determine their own gender, and Hyrek decided to be neutral. Devi then proceeded to ask how she should identify him—a move which mirrored the changes that we are seeing these days with encouraging and accepting people to self-identify—and Hyrek responds that "he" is fine because: "Humans are a backward sort of species that puts one gender before the other. Seeing this, I've found it's much easier to be thought of as male rather than female, especially looking as I do. And since designation is meaningless to me, I don't see why I shouldn't take the easier choice." (219) This response reminded me of a bit in a Louis C.K. standup where he talks about how he would re-up as a straight white male every year given the opportunity because of it essentially being the lowest difficulty setting in life.
The big point of contention in the Vaginal Fantasy forums was that Rupert wipes her memories at the end of the first book, and the result that this book is not really a standalone. While I don't think that it's necessarily the best plot device to completely wipe a character's memory, because I knew that I still had two more books in the trilogy, and because I was already well-acquainted with Devi's stubbornness, I knew it would be resolved before too long.
In Honor's Knight, the audience starts out knowing that Devi has had her mind wiped, but she has absolutely no idea. She thinks that she has memory loss from head trauma after a battle at the end of the first book, during which her fellow security officer lost his life. Devi gradually gets her memory back and realizes that during a mission, she was exposed to a virus that allows her to see the invisible "monsters" they encountered, and in fact even kill them. As such, the group that operated the previous defense against the monsters wants to study her and use her as a weapon. Understandably, Devi is not super stoked about that plan, and she tries to run.
I got to chapter 5 in this book and was feeling incredibly frustrated and confused and intrigued all at the same time. Thank goodness it wasn't released as a serial or something because I would've gone nuts.
There was more commentary in this book about gender and identity when Devi has a talk with the pilot, an alien that looks like an oversized bird. (I kept picturing Big Bird...) I appreciated that again.
We learn more about some of the medical advancements in this book, which I found spectacular, one of which was the portable spray skin grafting. Spray Cans: Not Just for Paint and Plastic Cheese Anymore.
I feel like Devi's experience getting the virus is like a metaphor for life. You may have this grand plan for how you think your life is going to go, and you work hard and you think you're on the right track. But it just takes one thing to make everything go to shit. Isn't that reassuring?! It even happens to space mercenaries.
In Heaven's Queen, we finally see the resolution. Devi is visited by a gaggle of small phantoms, that form into one large phantom in order to communicate to her that they're really not trying to hurt anyone; they're trying to get back to their universe, which they can't do because the door they came in is being blocked by Maat. She finds that out in this particularly touching exchange:
I could actually see the light vanishing before my eyes, but I didn't understand why. It had formed itself out of smaller phantoms, hadn't it? Why didn't it break apart again? Cut off the sickness and go back to how it was?Devi resolves to help Maat, the original daughter, die by giving her the virus, thus opening the door for the phantoms to leave her universe, resolving the issues that they were all inadvertently causing. What ensues is the struggle to make that happen, despite all obstacles.
But the phantom did no such thing. It just hung there, its blue eyes watching me even as they succumbed to the dark, and I couldn't do a damn thing but watch as the phantom died.
'Home.' Its booming voice was thin and brittle now, but the word was clearer than ever as its last glowing tentacle, the last light of its entire body, reached up to point at my face.
I met it on instinct, grabbing the offered tentacle with both my hands. I didn't even have a name for the emotion tearing through me. No word seemed big enough. I hadn't understood before, but I knew now on a deep, primal level that this phantom had given up its life so that I would believe. It had sought me, found me, grabbed me knowing that I was death so that it could show me the truth. Even now, I could feel its longing, the phantom's--maybe all phantoms'--desperate need to go back, and as the last of its light faded, I swore. (Heaven's Queen, 232)
There was a kind of small moment where Rupert tells Devi not to do something, no matter what happens. She says she was tempted to ignore him, "But I didn't. Rupert told me to stay away, and that was exactly what I planned to do. I wasn't about to be the idiot who got herself killed ignoring basic safety instructions because she couldn't take the noise. So even though the screams seemed to be getting worse by the second, I climbed back into the captain's chair and stayed put..." (78) FINALLY!! Even though she's a warrior, Devi knows when to listen to what other people have instructed her to do. I'm so sick of specifically female characters getting injured during conflict because they just don't listen, or because they decide to shout at the exact inopportune moment.
Throughout all the books, Devi is sassy and sarcastic, which I appreciate as a smartass myself. Here's a quote that I flagged that exemplified this for me: "He let me go before I could tell him to get his claws off me, which was absolutely what I'd been about to say, even though the phrase forming on my tongue had felt more like I'm glad you're okay, too. But that couldn't have been it, because I wasn't saying that sort of thing to Rupert anymore." (Honor's Knight, 321)
The overarching plotline of the trilogy was poignant to issues that we consider today, and which also stymied philosophers of old: Which is more important, the greater good or the individual? When Devi discovers what is happening with Maat and the daughters, she automatically rejects that these girls should lose their lives merely because it keeps the rest of their universe safe. Caldswell is so certain that the survival of that universe is more important. This also correlates to current events, with everyone so certain that they are right and the other side is wrong, to the absolute exclusion of considering something from an alternate point of view. (I've been there myself sometimes, I'll admit.) It was fairly subtle social commentary within a completely realized space trilogy. Along with this, there really were no characters who were just senselessly evil. Everyone was just trying to do the right thing, as they saw it. You don't see this kind of development often, since it's so much easier to have a villain who is a caricature and heroes who are clearly heroes.
Also this concept of killing the phantoms (what they call the invisible monsters), even though they don't really understand them, because of something that is ultimately outside of the phantom's control. Devi can be against that, because she can actually somewhat understand the phantoms. This is another metaphor for life and history. There were a lot of people who just decided to destroy things that they didn't understand because they somehow felt those things were a threat to them.
I would strongly recommend this series to anyone interested in sci-fi and strong heroines.