UNDER FORTUNATE STARS by Ren Hutchings
Rebellion Publishing, HB, £13.19
Reviewed by Stephen Frame
UNDER FORTUNATE STARS is space opera, pure and simple. Opening the cover and reading the first few chapters is like putting on an old leather jacket you love – right away, you know where you are and what to expect.
The story opens with a disparate gang thrown together by circumstance onto the Jonah, a junker of a spaceship. Everyone on board has something to hide. Everyone has an agenda. Pitch in an illegal cargo, a downbeat spaceport and a war with an alien race known as the Felen, and you know you’re in familiar SF territory. ‘Firefly’ is the go-to comparison.
Only, the narrative takes an interesting twist; a time-travelling event, as the crew of the Jonah, trapped in a rift in space, encounter the Gallion, a ship from their future. The crew of the Jonah find out some very surprising things about that future, not least that the war with the Felen has ended, and they appear to have played a key role in brokering the peace. With that peace now under threat due to the Johan being stuck in the rift and unable to complete her voyage, the two crews need to work together to free themselves and return to their own time.
UNDER FORTUNATE STARS is a fast-paced, easy-read story. Don’t expect hard SF, the narrative glosses over any pesky physics and gets right down to leading a cast of archetype characters through the plot. There’s the swaggering, devil-may-care captain of the Jonah, his thoughtful, super-smart sidekick, the unlikely heroine with a dark secret, the stalwart engineer, the enigmatic alien ambassador.
It could all be a run of the mill read, but UNDER FORTUNATE STARS is done with style. The main characters, when not bickering over how to get out of their predicament or working their way through the action set-pieces, show frailty and vulnerability, lending depth where needed. The action is page-turning. There are fights, rescues, improbable fixes, near misses and beat the clock moments.
Tied in with all this is the mystery of how the crew of the Jonah become their unlikely future selves, revered as the five who bring the war to an end using their unique talents. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the action, letting the story have quieter, more reflective moments. There is extensive use of flashbacks centred on the three main protagonists, so much that it feels like a separate story in places. But it’s no bad thing; it’s handled neatly and serves its purpose of giving a longer story arc to the main players and taking the reader further than the confines of the two trapped ships, opening the story out to a wider milieu. There is also a vein of sly humour running through the story. Any reader who has worked for a big corporation will likely manage a knowing smile at the grim corporate bureaucracy the crew of the Gallion labour under.