Although it might seem (at least to those who know me only via my reviews) that my primary hobby is reading, I also play a lot of video games. In fact, were it not because of video games, I’d probably get through a lot more books a lot faster than I currently do. But I enjoy playing video games, have done so since I was eleven and was first handed a Nintendo Game Boy. I progressed from there, playing on a Sony Playstation, then a Playstation 2, then an Xbox 360, and most recently to a desktop PC.
One thing, however, has remained constant: the kinds of games I play. I’ve always preferred to play RPGs—role-playing games—that were often long, involved stories wherein the player took on the role of a character in the game, and progressed through the game’s storyline as that character, often assisted and accompanied by other characters, and fighting against a whole variety of antagonists. I started out with Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation, and moved on from there, expanding my repertoire from the rather linear JRPGs (Japanese RPGs) to the broader “open world” RPGs that are currently favoured in the video game industry: games like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and the Assassin’s Creed series.
Video games don’t tell stories the same way books or movies or TV shows or comic books do, though: one necessarily considers not just the “video” aspect of the term “video games”, but also—and sometimes more importantly—the “games” aspect of it. But video games are no different from books and movies and TV shows and comics in that, since they’re a kind of storytelling, they must adhere to certain requirements that are important to any kind of storytelling, regardless of what medium it comes in. This means that video games, but RPGs especially, need to have a good cast of characters, a good plot, and a decent thematic base. And, like books and movies and TV shows and comics, video games can come up strong in certain aspects of storytelling, and weak in others.
One of my favourite examples of the above is Bioware’s Mass Effect series. Set in a far-flung future, where humanity has advanced to a space-faring civilisation after discovering advanced alien technology on Mars, it follows the story of Shepard (who can be male or female, depending on player preference) on their missions as a Spectre, a member of an elite group of soldiers who go around the galaxy going on missions that are too sensitive or too dangerous for members of the regular military or police force. Along the way, Shepard interacts with members of other races, tries to play politics, and find out what, precisely, the Reapers are, before they become a very real danger to the galaxy.
So far, so sci-fi: nothing about the above is foreign to fans of science fiction, and indeed, a great majority of Mass Effect’s fans were drawn to the game (as opposed to its sister series, Dragon Age) precisely because it was sci-fi. It wasn’t entirely perfect, of course: there were portrayals of female characters that most feminists found objectionable, as well as dialogue and in-game choices (both in terms of their lack, and in terms of their presence) that made people chafe because they presented sci-fi stereotypes that they found objectionable (often with good reason). With a new Mass Effect game coming out soon, featuring a new protagonist, there are high hopes that the thematic issues plaguing the original trilogy will have been resolved.
For my part, I can afford to be patient: I’m not completely happy with the Mass Effect series as it stands, but I do have something to fill in the gap while waiting for the new series to come out—thanks, as always, to Hope: Rachel Bach’s incredible Paradox series, which starts with the novel Fortune’s Pawn.
Fortune’s Pawn opens with Deviana “Devi” Morris getting out of bed after a very good night with Anthony, a friend with benefits she met while she was with the Blackbirds, the most famous private armored company on the planet Paradox. She’s just told him she’s quit the Blackbirds in order to avoid getting promoted to a desk job, and is now looking for a new opportunity to prove herself so she can join the Devastators, the elite armoured guard who work under the direct command of the Sainted Kings of Paradox. Anthony then tells her about one Brian Caldswell, who’s just arrived on Paradox looking to hire mercenaries as security detail for his ship, the Glorious Fool. Devi’s about to turn the offer down, but when Anthony mentions that those who survive a full tour aboard the Glorious Fool are fast-tracked for Devastator status, Devi decides that she’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain. She heads off to the ship, fully determined to the join the crew, and manages to do so. What follows is everything that Devi did not expect while walking around in circles on a merchant ship: strange crew members, even stranger destinations, and extremely deadly adventures that convince Devi that she’s in for a lots of fights, explosions, and maybe even death.
One of the chief standouts of this novel—and of the series—are the characters, especially Devi. She’s an unapologetic, in-your-face go-getter who doesn’t take no for an answer unless it’s a direct order from a superior. She knows what she wants, and she knows precisely how she’s going to get it, and even though it’s going to hard and very dangerous, she doesn’t care. That sort of characterisation is nothing new, but what makes it special, in Devi’s case, is that she’s a woman. Most of the time, one sees that aggressive go-getter personality in male characters, so to see Devi characterised as such is a lovely, wonderful thing indeed.
Even better, though, is that Devi actually changes, develops as the novel progresses and she interacts with the other crew members of the Glorious Fool. The core of who she is doesn’t change—she’s still hard-headed and courageous to the point of foolhardy sometimes—but the way she views other people, human or otherwise, gradually changes as she gets to know them better. That’s proper character development, and I very much look forward to finding out how she grows in the later novels.
The other characters are equally fun to read about, and even better, stand out in their own right. My particular favourite is Hyrek, the xith’cal doctor of the Glorious Fool. The xith’cal are a lizard-like race, generally described as very warlike, and therefore a threat, to other species that encounter them. Even worse (at least, to non-xith’cal), they eat their dead enemies, and even their own kind.
Initially, Devi has some very deep-seated prejudices against the xith’cal, not least because she’s had to fight them quite frequently during her time working as a Blackbird, and probably even before that. Over time, however, she sheds some of that prejudice as she spends more time with Hyrek, learning that the xith’cal aren’t as deadly or disgusting as she first thought—or at least, not all of them. Hyrek is also unique in that he’s a xith’cal who stands outside of the traditional gender-divided structure of xith’cal society, because he’s chosen not to have any gender at all. Why this is important is explained in the novel, but it’s one of those instances wherein Bach shows she’s capable of constructing a very alien race, instead of having aliens who are just humans gussied up with prosthetics and body paint (a flaw many sci-fi writers are trying their best to correct—or not, as the case may be).
Another character I have a special fondness for is Nova. She’s part of a group called the “Unity of the Cosmos”, people who don’t live on planets, but on isolated space colonies. Devi views her, initially, as one of those hippie-dippy, we-are-all-one-with-the-universe types she (and many readers, I’m sure) would normally dismiss out of hand, but over time Nova comes into her own as one of the nicest, most genuine people on the entire ship, maybe in the entire series. This has mostly to do with the way Bach writes Nova: she doesn’t treat Nova’s beliefs as funny, or make Nova an object of fun in any way; rather, Nova is used as the counterbalance to all the other personalities on the ship, the one shining light of true goodness and peace in a rather darker crew.
There are other characters of course, like Ren, Caldswell’s daughter; Basil, the navigator; Mabel, the engineer; and Rupert, the cook, but I won’t talk about them too much here, partly because they haven’t been very well-developed yet, and partly because doing so would give away far too much about the plot. Suffice to say that they are interesting and fun, and will prove very important in the later books.
And speaking of the plot, it has got to be one of the most fun I’ve read in a good long while. It’s a very fast-moving plot, but never once does it feel confusing. It does slow down, from time to time, but it’s the slowing-down one might encounter in a good action movie: a breather before something very, very big happens. Bach also has a very good sense for how to use atmosphere in order to immerse the reader further into the plot: a good example of this is the scene when Devi and her partner, Cotter, are sent to investigate a dead xith’cal tribe ship. There is a lot about that particular moment in the novel that reminds of the movie Alien in all the best ways; this is actually unsurprising, since Bach herself admits, in a brief interview in the novel’s “Extras” section, that she drew a great deal of inspiration from the movie, not just in terms of plot, but also in her characterisation of Devi.
But what I think Bach is really very good at is handling twists and reveals. When something is revealed about a character or a plot point, I found it very, very hard to stop myself from from squirming and actively talking to the book (and myself)—indeed, I had a hard time keeping a relatively bland expression at the office, because all I wanted to do was grin from ear-to-ear every time something warranted it. My liveblogging Twitter account is full of caps-locked, keysmashed exclamations because of how very excited I was by what I was reading: probably the best indicator of how much I liked the book, especially given how often I swore at the thing in paroxysms of excitement and anger (the good kind).
Overall, Fortune’s Pawn is an extremely fun novel, and a great opening to what promises to be an amazing series. The characters all stand out, but Devi is something special indeed, and I look forward to reading about her growth in future novels—as well as all the other ways she can get into trouble, because a woman like her doesn’t stay out of trouble for very long. I also look forward to finding out what else is going on in the larger, overarching plot of the novels, because the ending to this one, while it closed the book just fine, just left more questions than answers, and I cannot wait to find out more.
Now, I need to get to Honour’s Knight as soon as possible, because if I don’t, I just might pop from not knowing what happens next.