My new year’s reading is coming along (very) slowly, but I’m still chipping away at my review backlog. Today’s reviews are space operas read in 2022: Warlady by Jo Graham and Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings.
Warlady – Jo Graham
Morrigan is on the cusp of changes nurtured by a reforming Warlady. When she dies unexpectedly, her military adviser soon finds evidence of assassination. Is this the first strike by the rival Calpurnians – already gathering to invade as news spreads – or are there threats closer to home?
The Calpurnian Wars are a series of stand-alone space operas featuring different cultures resisting the might of acquisitive superpower Calpurnia. I jumped in at Warlady (the second volume) at the invitation of author Jo Graham and entered a world of AI gods, forbidden magic and intergalactic politics that I would class as scifantasy (perhaps your powers were genetically engineered in the dim past and preserved in carefully bred bloodlines, but electromancy still looks like magic to me).
This short novel will suit plot-first readers, a fast-paced, dramatic read with engaging characters and plenty of action. It didn’t entirely work for me – I was frustrated by the world-building and awkward infodumps, and I would have liked rather more depth to the politics and antagonists. However, I appreciated the focus on an established romance between two middle-aged protagonists and enjoyed the overarching themes of challenging tradition and creating a more equitable society. A fun diversion if you are seeking a quick, good-hearted read with swords and spaceships.
Under Fortunate Stars – Ren Hutchings
In sharp contrast to Warlady, Under Fortunate Stars does a grand job of casually but quickly accumulating just enough worldbuilding to keep it afloat. Timelines collide when a tramp smuggler and a research vessel are trapped in an anomaly, teasing questions about parallel dimensions, the bootstrap paradox and whether you can trust anything presented as historical fact.
The result is a high stakes race against time – save ourselves to save our future – that is largely character-driven as the crew of the Gallion try to figure out whether these unconvincing, self-interested smugglers are really the Fortunate Five who long-ago brokered a peace with an alien culture on track to wipe out humanity. It’s a great set-up, delivering a fun, fluffy read.
That said, Under Fortunate Stars never quite got under my skin. I think I needed a little more runway up front to appreciate the Felen threat and I was nonplussed by Keeven’s chameleon character, struggling to reconcile how he presented in flashbacks vs the opening chapters vs his performance in the final act. There was also a romance subplot and some final act shenanigans that I found a little too telegraphed to entirely satisfy.
Still, I enjoyed the warm camaraderie of the Gallion’s junior crew and Uma’s awkward fangirling at meeting her lifelong fascination Leesongronski (even if he seems more grumpy than heroic). I was heartily amused that the identity of some members of the Fortunate Five are a mystery, but it definitely couldn’t be this guy (fair; Keeven is skeevy). I would recommend this to those seeking a cosy SFnal adventure with endearing characters.
Many thanks to Jo Graham for sending me a copy of WARLADY and to Rebellion Publishing for providing a review copy of UNDER FORTUNATE STARS. All books are available now in print and digital editions.