Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings

Under Fortunate Stars, Ren Hutchings (Rebel­lion/Solaris 978-1-78618-592-1, $24.99, 480pp, hc) May 2022

It takes less than ten pages to understand the deep love Ren Hutchings has for space operas. Classic ones, modern ones. Movies, series, adaptations. From Firefly to The Forever War, the homages run deep in Under Fortunate Stars. But this is no cookie-cutter hack or half-baked collage. Under Fortunate Stars manages to tease out the familiar, best parts of the genre – and then flip them inside out.

The crew of the deep space cargo hauler Jonah are as ragtag as they come. The captain, Jereth Keeven, is a fast-talking dumpster fire: the product of a poverty-stricken ‘‘dust’’ planet on the edge of the Union, he joined the United Worlds Defense Forces at sixteen – to fight the brutal invasion of the Felen, a strange, cruel alien race – only to be stripped of his rank and dismissed for conduct. After meeting a mathematical savant, Eldric Leesongronski, on a drinking binge, ‘‘Jere’’ and ‘‘Leeg’’ become fast friends and partners; first running complicated scams and hacks, then as smugglers, running cargo for cash. When we meet the two friends, they’ve expanded their crew to in­clude a large, blunt weapon of an engineer, Dargo Mendeg, and two unexpected passengers. While the highly genetically-modded Keila KvaSova has offered to pay for her passage, the other, Charyne Jaxong, has threatened her way aboard the Jonah. The five are on a weapons drop to a ‘‘ditch ship,’’ a highly illegal and dangerous run, with plans to drop Keila and Charyne off at the next port, when the Jonah loses all power. The ship is marooned, right at the horizon of a bizarre space anomaly.

One hundred and fifty years in the future, the ZeyCorp science ship, the Gallion, is staffed by a skeleton crew. Its mission is unusual for the research vessel; it is transporting a Felen ambas­sador and the Felen’s interpreter, a genetically-modified human ‘‘Voiced,’’ to a summit. The war against the Felen had raged for decades, until a human contingent, called ‘‘The Fortunate Five,’’ brokered a delicate peace between the races. Since then, while things have gone well, it’s important that humans are careful around the Felen – and so, the Gallion feels the pressure of having an uneventful journey, pleasant for their esteemed guests.

Of course, the trip becomes extremely eventful. The Gallion finds itself trapped by a rift in space – the same anomaly as the Jonah, in fact, as they discover after responding to the Jonah’s distress calls. Somehow, the rift bridged time. And, if Gallion chief engineer Uma Ozakka is correct, has threatened to undo the peace of the last cen­tury – as the five members of the Jonah crew are supposed to be the history-altering Fortunate Five.

They are in the wrong place, the wrong time, to negotiate with the Felen.

Few of the Gallion initially believe this Jonah crew is the same Jonah crew from the past. These five are rough, coarse – the opposite of the mythology built up around the historical heroes. Besides, the Gallion has problems and secrets of their own. Captain Olghan Fransk’s corporate career is finished, unless he successfully sees his Felen passenger safely to their destination, while facilities coordinator Shaan Norte struggles with painful memories dredged up as she faces the Felen’s young Voiced, Gida.

Just as two timelines meet in the present, so Under Fortunate Stars moves between points-of-view and flashbacks. Nearly every section switches characters and time, to fully humanize the characters from both ships, and give a sense of the sheer expanse between the past of the Jonah and the future that hinges upon these accidental time travelers fulfilling their destiny. The complications of the plot – how the trapped ships can get free of the rift, and whether that will affect their current timeline – are compelling; but more engrossing is whether Jereth, Eldric, and the Jonah crew can become the heroes they need to be. The question of their identity is solved early in the novel, so the tension is in the development of their characters, literally. Even the extraordinarily risky plan to break free of the rift, which involves a mind boggling amount of explosives, feels considerably less dicey than placing the safety of humanity in the hands of the fast-talking, unreliable Jereth and the sulky, sarcastic Leesongronski.

In the end, Under Fortunate Stars is a deeply hu­man book. In the face of so much that is strange and, in actuality, alien, Hutchings keeps the dangers quite grounded in believable, empathetic experience. With the trappings of a good space opera, and a sweeping setting that encompasses galaxies and more than a century, the focus remains on the people living there. Their successes – and failures – depend on how they find strength in one another. Redemption is based on more than empty heroic action. How one rises to fill the shoes of heroes, how we can become more than we are, requires love, loss, fear, guilt, shame, friendship, and hope. Redemption, in this case, relies on our humanity.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the May 2022 issue of Locus.

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