I didn’t think I’d finish this month’s TBR Challenge book in time, but misguided-afternoon-coffee induced insomnia changed that. For the same reason, this won’t be my most coherent post ever. By a long shot.
This month’s theme was “Series Catch-Up,” and I had a lot of possibilities thanks to my bad habit of buying several books in a series before I’m sure I really like it (I’ve gotten better about this). I decided to catch up with a series I’m still confident I want to finish, Rachel Bach’s space opera Paradox trilogy.
I read the first book, Fortune’s Pawn, last summer and bought the sequels, Honor’s Knight and Heaven’s Queen, when I was only a few chapters in, sure I’d want to read them all. I think it was the sheer, bubble-gum exuberance of the storytelling that hooked me. I mean “bubble-gum” as a compliment: this is fast-paced, action-oriented fun with a very confident narrative voice. They aren’t pure candy, either: though the action is always in the forefront, there are complex moral questions underlying the world, and the characters grew in interesting ways in this second installment. I will try to keep my discussion vague and non-spoilery, but I know a lot of people have already read this, so consider the comments a place for spoilery discussion if you like.
I love the titles of these books and the way they evoke the feudal values of Paradox, Devi Morris’ home world. Devi starts the series as a typical mercenary (except for being female), ambitious, hard-drinking, detached, tough, not at all self-reflective. But when she joins Brian Caldswell’s trading ship The Glorious Fool as a security officer and things start to get weird, her straightforword, shoot-from-the-hip approach to life doesn’t serve her so well.
I worried at first that this middle book of the trilogy would be a “filler” book–the end of Fortune’s Pawn kind of pushes reset on the story, since Devi loses a big chunk of her memory and what little understanding she has gained of the battle she’s found herself in. But that actually allowed me to ease back in and gradually remember key points of the earlier book without a lot of info-dumping. Around a third of the way in, Devi and I were both back up to speed. And I think that period of uncertainty is important for Devi, who has always gone with her gut; now, her instincts can’t be trusted, she can’t jump straight to action, and she has to start thinking more: “no one ever did herself a favor by staying ignorant.”
The title points to the importance of honor in the book. It’s not at all clear to Devi or the reader which, if any, of the various factions are acting honorably, and our allegiance and sympathy, like hers, shifts dramatically over the course of the book. “The truth is there are no heroes,” someone who has betrayed her terribly tells Devi. “We’re all villains excusing our actions by hiding behind a greater good.” Devi wants to do the right, honorable thing, but by the end of the book, she, like her opponents, has done something she swore she never would, something she condemned them for, because it seemed like the best or only thing to do in the moment. Even the most honorable thing. No one here has clean hands–and that becomes an important, subtle metaphor in the book. There is no easy moral clarity. The moral themes here remind me a little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: is it right to sacrifice a few innocents for the good of the many?
And yet! There is still a lot of bubble-gum fun in Honor’s Knight, which never stays stuck in thinking about all this for too long. Devi’s moral code might be: it’s not clear what’s right, but you have to act anyway. There’s humor: my favorite line was when Devi tells the ship’s doctor, “I get it, you’re a doctor, not a hacker.” Tons of great, cinematic action scenes. Vividly described alien creatures and worlds. And a love story that develops in slow and interesting ways. I thought the romance thread was the least interesting part of Fortune’s Pawn, disappointingly tropey, but someone told me it got more complicated, and in Honor’s Knight it did.
I won’t wait as long to get to Heaven’s Queen, especially as Honor’s Knight ended on a doozy of a cliff-hanger.