(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
It’s not often I choose to pick up the next book in a series immediately after I put down the one before it. I tend to pace myself when it comes to series, because I like giving myself some breathing room—not too much, of course, in case I forget what happened and have to do a reread, but enough that I can fit some other reading into the gap in the meantime. I do this mostly so I don’t reach the fatigue point I sometimes hit with a series, which can mean I’ll abandon the series, for a long time at best, and for good at worst. My general limit is seven books, but even with much shorter series I try to space them out as best as I can, just out of principle.
As a recent example, I finished what is currently available of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, in time for the release of the next book this year. Stross’ series is ridiculously easy reading, especially after I’d gotten over the hurdle of the first two books. When I finished the gem that was The Fuller Memorandum, I was willing to mainline the last two books, but I told myself not to. This decision was made easier by the fact that the novels tend to be complete in and of themselves, with almost no cliffhangers; the only one I’d seen so far was in the latest book The Rhesus Chart, and it’s not even so urgent that I require the next book right here, right now.
But every so often, there are those series that I can’t space out. These are series that are so good, so wonderful to read, that I can’t bear to move on to anything else until I’ve finished the series (if I’m lucky), or at least reached the latest book and have to begin the agonising wait for the next book’s release (if I’m not so lucky). Right this moment, that series is Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, which is why this review for the second book, Honour’s Knight comes hot on the heels of my review for the first book, Fortune’s Pawn. And I am glad to report that Honour’s Knight did not let me down in the least.
Honour’s Knight picks up a short time after the end of Fortune’s Pawn. Thanks to the memory wipe at the end of the first novel, mercenary Devi Morris is quite sure something’s not right—not least the sense of revulsion she feels every time she looks at the Glorious Fool’s cook, whose name she can’t quite remember. Even worse, he keeps staring at her, as if he knows something about her but won’t say what it is. Between that, the strange floating, glowing bugs that only she can see; the strange black stain that appears on her hands without warning; and the nightmares, Devi has a full plate indeed. But if Devi is anything, she’s a professional, and she’d like to keep her job on the Glorious Fool, so she just lets it slide as far as she can—until something happens that tells her she can’t, and Devi learns that she might very well be the only thing standing between the universe’s continued existence, or its ultimate destruction.
In many ways, Honour’s Knight is a continuation of all the good things one encountered—and maybe fell in love with—in Fortune’s Pawn. Devi is still Devi: she’s still the tough, stubborn, go-getter merc the reader meets in the first book, but she’s changed somewhat, as well. Part of the change has to do with the memory wipe that happened to her at the end of the first novel, but once that particular issue is resolved it has more to do with the way she adjusts to the rapid changes in the world around her—not least the realisation that she might be the universe’s best shot at salvation. It’s also clear that she has a very interesting moral compass (a compass which is about doing the right thing, though not necessarily the right way), and this compass, in tandem with her complete and utter disregard for her own safety, make Devi an even more interesting character. By around the latter third the reader should be able to reasonably guess what she’s likely to do, when faced with a decision, but how she does it is often the question—and often, what keeps the reader reading.
And then there’s her romance with Rupert. I’ll admit that it’s one of the highlights for me so far, not least because Bach manages to balance the romance with the other elements of the novel, but something happens in this novel that makes me kind of squint and look at it sideways. To go into details would be giving away too much, but suffice to say that while I like how Devi handled it, for the most part, there was a tendency to swing around from one end of the scale to the other (what scale that is will be clear to the reader once they reach a certain point), and I’m not quite sure how I feel about the whole thing anymore. Of course, it could just be that I don’t have the personal experience to completely understand what Devi’s going through, since I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. It’s also possible that the vindictive tendencies I’ve picked up from the women of my family (who believe that, if one has been betrayed, whether friend or boyfriend, one must drop said person like a hot potato and burn all bridges to a crisp) is interfering with my appreciation for the twists and turns Devi’s emotions take. Either way, I’m hoping things stabilise and become clearer in the next book, because I don’t think my heart could take any further confusion.
The other characters are still as fun as they were in the last book, though not all of them get the development I hoped for. The big winners in the development department are Rupert, Caldswell, and Brenton, whose pasts are more entangled and intertwined than the reader might have suspected, and whose motivations are not as clear-cut as it might initially seem. The other supporting characters, both old and new, don’t get a lot of development, which is rather sad, but I’m expecting things to even out somewhat in the last book.
Now that I mention the greyness of certain characters’ motivations, I think I should mention how much I enjoyed that moral ambiguity. That lack of clarity, the fact that almost all sides in the conflict have entirely valid reasons for doing whatever they’re doing, is probably the best thing about this book. I love it when a writer can juggle moral dilemmas in a way that makes it look like every side is the good side, if one looks at it the right way, and Bach succeeds at doing just that in this novel. Some characters are doing the wrong things for the right reasons, and others are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and then there are others who are doing things for reasons that are entirely their own. It takes a while for Devi, and the reader, to figure out who’s doing what, and why, but it’s a journey that, in my opinion, makes for an amazing emotional roller-coaster.
That moral greyness also forms the thematic backbone of this novel. High-level decision-making is difficult in peacetime, but it’s even more complicated during wartime. When lives are at stake, leaders find themselves in positions wherein they must oftentimes decide, not whether people get to live or die, but how many of them die so that others may live. It’s a hard choice, but it is still a choice that must be made, under a variety of circumstances and for a variety of reasons. It can break some people, true, but for others the running tally of the dead versus the living is reduced to nothing more than a complex calculus: win some, lose some, and hopefully more of the latter than the former is the case most of the time. Methods are retained and used continually because they work, and finding another solution is no longer an option, because of the high cost of failure. Of course, it should be obvious by now that that’s not how Devi works, so part of the fun of this whole novel is reading how Devi pushes back against that way of thinking.
But the true star of this novel—aside from Devi, of course—is the plot. As with the first novel, there are many hairpin twists and turns, but they seem to have increased exponentially in this novel, with events coming at the reader from left, right, and centre; sometimes it can feel like those plot twists are coming from directly below, or directly above. Through all of this, Bach manages to retain a sense of control in her storytelling; never once does the plot feel like it’s gotten out of hand, and any confusion the reader may feel has more to do with character motivations and backstory than any unexplained alterations in the plot. The fight scenes are also very well done, each one easily comprehensible to the reader, with lots of room for jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring moments. There is one scene, in particular, that occurs towards the end of the novel, and which has an almost cinematic quality to it that I could see it as a movie scene right out of the best sci-fi action films, slo-mo cinematography and all.
Overall, Honour’s Knight is an amazing continuation of the story begun in Fortune’s Pawn. Given how the first novel ended, readers will likely want to see what happens to Devi and how she reacts to her new situation in life, and they get to see that reaction in spades, as well as the way she not only adjusts, but grows as a character given what’s going on around her. Though this is the middle book in a trilogy, there is absolutely no sense of “middle book syndrome”: the world expands, as some questions from the first novel are answered, and even more questions are laid out for the reader, likely (hopefully) to be answered in the third and final book of the trilogy. While I do have some very small misgivings about how Devi’s romantic relationship is being written, and how some characters are getting rather short shrift in the development department, everything else is still just as fun as the first novel, and promises to get even more fun—and even more explosive—in the third book.