2019’s Fortuna is the first volume in Kristyn Merbeth’s The Nova Vita Protocol.
Many decades ago a fleet of generation ships carried refugees from doomed Earth to Nova Vita, a nearby red dwarf. There humans settled five worlds with native biospheres: Nibiru, Deva, Pax, Titan, and Gaia. Faced with the challenge of adapting to alien planets, humans did what humans do best: they turned on each other.
Interplanetary trader Mama Kaiser has no illusions about the future of her children. The paranoid governments of Nova Vita dislike and distrust anyone from other planets. The best that Interplanetary vagabonds can expect is grudging indifference. The only people who will look out for the Kaisers are Kaisers. Blood above all!
Which didn’t prevent Corvus Kaiser from signing up for a three-year tour in Titan’s endless civil war.
Corvus was the oldest child. His absence was a bitter blow to the Kaiser family. It was also a chance for Scorpia to prove that she was his equal, someone who might some day be trusted to command the family space vessel Fortuna. Scorpia is determined to win her mother’s trust. Too bad for Scorpia that she’s not trustworthy. Nobody is going to trust the family business to an erratic, self-pitying drunk.
Now Corvus’ term of enlistment has ended. He is free to rejoin his family. While Scorpia misses her brother, this not a welcome development. Her mother barely relied on her when there was no alternative. Corvus’ return ensures that Scorpia will be demoted to second-rank status. Mama is very clear that as soon as Corvus is back on board, he and not Scorpia will replace Mama as commander.
Scorpia thought Corvus abandoned the family out of some ill-conceived loyalty to the world from which his biological father came. Not so. He did so at his mother’s insistence. Mama has always had a keen eye for opportunity; risking Corvus’ life was the price for forging better bonds with Titan’s General Altair. He survived and now the family gets its big payoff.
Humans are not the first intelligent beings to call Nova Vita home. The Primus aliens were long gone by the time humanity’s fleet arrived, but Primus artifacts litter the system. Is it prudent to commandeer alien technology? Some planets are gung-ho for adoption. Others counsel restraint; after all, something killed the aliens and that something might have been their own technology.
The government of Gaia believes fervently that Primus relics could be the key to self-sufficiency, an end to corrupting contact with the lesser worlds of the system. Amongst their discoveries: a superweapon. It’s of little use to Gaia but could be of great value to Titan. It just so happens that General Altair of Titan has a Primus artifact that Gaia would very much like to obtain. All that’s needed is a middleman. Or middleperson.
The deal seems straightforward: Mama delivers the weapon to Altair. Altair hands her a powerful alien power-plant. Altair’s side ends the civil war. Gaia gets its new power source. Mama makes out like a bandit, earning enough money to protect her kids from the dark days she knows are coming.
Gaia has not been entirely forthcoming about their plans. Even if they had been, there is no scheme so flawless that Scorpia cannot fuck it up beyond all recognition. Too bad, because the survival of the four other habitable worlds of the system will depend on Scorpia’s judgement.
I really need to do a Tor piece about how people who cannot save their own world probably aren’t going to be building a fleet of interstellar starships.
This novel falls nicely into bits I didn’t like and bits I did. Let’s start with the negativity first.
This is a space opera set in a single system, inspired by Trappist‑1. It resembles the planetary romances of old. What’s odd is that the relative positions of the worlds appear to be fixed: if it’s a week from Gaia to Nibiru, it’s always a week from Gaia to Nibiru. Since planets move, the distances and travel times should vary.
The plot depends on some hoary and implausible tropes: stealth in space, frequent deep-space ship-to-ship boarding actions. Perhaps I should add that ships use gravity drives that can also act as tractor beams. This strikes me as … implausible, but perhaps I’m wrong.
It’s a big setting (five planets) but there are remarkably few important players. There are a couple of generals who matter on Titan, Altair and Ives. President Leonis of Gaia matters, as does her daughter Shey. Aside from Fortuna, the only other ship that does plotty stuff is rival Captain Murdock’s Red Baron . All these players seem to know each other. Mama doesn’t seem to have had any trouble establishing contacts with Altair and Leonis, while Scorpia is knocking boots with both Shey and Murdock’s son Orion .
Now for the stuff I liked.
The Kaiser family dynamics are convincingly portrayed. The voices of Corvus and Scorpia are convincing and quite distinct. The novel is told from two perspectives; that of Scorpia (whose faith in her own genius is not constrained by fact) and that of Corvus (who hasn’t been there for a lot of the set-up).
(For about half the book, I was sure this was going to turn into an Elizabethan tragedy in which Scorpia, desperate to prove she isn’t the fuck-up that her every action suggests she is, turns on her favourite sibling for the crime of not being the sort of person who tries to land a space ship while blind drunk. Oh, well. Review the book the author wrote, not the one you wish they had written.)
This is another book in which hard people who make what they think are harsh but necessary choices only succeed in making the world a much worse place. It’s good when “I was forced to do the nasty thing I did” is critiqued.
The bits that bugged me are fixable. The characters are enjoyable. I am curious as to how the series will develop.
1: Granted, it’s a plot point that most ships are fully automated. There aren’t a lot of crewed ships still plying the trade routes.
2: Scorpia’s affair with Murdock’s son Orion makes boarding actions very convenient. She and her lover are supposedly carrying on a bitter feud in which only they can kill the other. In actual practice, whenever one is captured, the other takes custody to execute them personally, in private. Inexplicably this always ends with an escaped prisoner and their would-be executioner covered in combat hickeys. I would not be terribly surprised to discover in later books that absolutely everyone on both ships has seen through this cunning ruse.