ARC Review: “Under Fortunate Stars” by Ren Hutchings

(thanks to Rebellion Publishing for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: space, ticking clocks, STEM, multiple POV, time travel, tension, survival, overcoming/learning to live with trauma, interplaying timelines, boss bitches, grumpy heroes, locked-room mysteries, Harrow the Ninth, Star Trek character dynamics, pseudo-unreliable narrators, flawed characters, moral grayness, existentialism

Triggers: death, mild sexual content, assault, murder, profanity, anxiety, blood, war, emotional trauma

Under Fortunate Stars

Goodreads Summary:

Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven’s freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.

The Gallion’s chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five’s legendary ship—and the Five’s famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.

But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.

(Goodreads book profile here)


I read this book in one sitting—and I knew this was gonna be the case after reading the first couple of chapters. Why? Because the tension in this book is off the charts. It’s in every single chapter, on every single page, even across several POVs. Hutchings is a master of microtension as well as macrotension, and you feel it from the second you lay eyes on their words. The stakes are palpable and high as all hell, but presented to you through a narrow, character-oriented scope. Add in that Hutchings is a master of subtext and narrative omission, and you have the perfect locked-room mystery on hand.

But it’s not a locked-room mystery in the traditional sense. A lot of the elements are there, however, to give the illusion of it. It reminds me a lot of Harrow the Ninth in that there’s that same feeling of being trapped in a place with the risk of death imminent until a mystery is figured out. In this case, the mystery isn’t a traditional mystery. It’s more a matter of figuring out how to survive, but the characters are shrouded in so much in mystery themselves that it feels less like they’re trying to survive, and more like they’re trying to hide from each other and themselves. Hutchings unveils the flawed and complicated history of the characters throughout the entire book, adding a locked-room feeling not just to the external plot, but also to the internal character arcs. It feels a little like a puzzle being pieced together backwards, if such a thing was physically possible.

At this point, I should probably include that a lot of this mystery (both external and internal) is derived from Hutchings’s expert play with time as a concept. The motley cast of the book is on a mission to restore the past in order to secure the future—but not in the traditional sense here, either. Hutchings plays with the time travel trope that “altering history will alter the future”, but they put a spin on it. The spin is that no one travels back in time. Rather, people from different timelines end up accidentally in a timeless existence relative to each other. In a sort of limbo-space (spoiler: an anomalous energy field) that’s neither the present, the past, nor the future—but timeless. Like connective tissue between all times, at once. And here people from different timelines in the same universe collide. The people from the future want to mold the people from the past into fitting history as they know it, whereas the people from the past reject the history that the people from the future present to them. It’s a truly fascinating play of character motivations and stakes—especially once you realize that righting the timelines to their natural states is necessary to prevent annihilation of humanity and put an end to a past/present/future war between humanity and an alien species.  

Loyalty, loss, and legend make up the thematic core of this book. It’s about the choices you didn’t make, those you did, and those you yet have to make. It’s about living up to being a legend, learning to live with loss, and understanding the sacrifices that loyalty demands. It also raises questions about chance, luck, and destiny. Perhaps most interestingly, the book highlights the power of communication as a theme, slotting the alien species into the position of sympathizer rather than the humans by making the alien species regretful over the lives lost once they realize humans are sentient via—you guessed it—communication. In this sense, the book also reminds me a lot of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life (and Arrival, the film version). Especially when you add the concept of non-linear time and mixes it with this focus on communication.

Then there’s the twist at the end of the book. It blew my mind. While Hutchings doesn’t use a 100% unreliable narrator (like, we’re not talking Gatsby and Shutter Island level), the feeling is there towards the end. This is mostly because pivotal information is omitted from the reader until the very end where it serves as a wild twist of a perfect answer to everything. And because the omission is driven by a character’s denial and repressed trauma, it feels less like an unreliable narrator than if the character had deliberately lied to the reader.

Last, but not least, we have realistic LGBTQ+ and diversity rep, running as a solid undercurrent that’s thankfully never presented as something spectacular or sensational, but rather something entirely inherent to human nature.

If you like mysteries in space and time, with a heavy dose of existentialist dread and deeply flawed, but admirable characters, then this book is for you.


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ARC Review – “Parting The Veil” by Paulette Kennedy

Read if you like: angst, romance, mystery, old mansions, independent American women shaking up 1800s Britain, ghosts, divination, female solidarity, family complications, family secrets, ancestral legacy, betrayals, LGBTQIA historical representation, fickle weather, clever multi-layered plot twists, atmospheric writing, equestrianism (pretty horses, really).

Content warnings: suicidal ideation, self-harm, sexual content, murder, forced captivity, assault/mild violence, drug use/alcoholism, arson, racist and colonial dynamics in historical context, child and pregnancy loss, war, blood, sexism and misogyny, toxic power dynamics, implied incest.

Goodreads summary:

Some houses hold secrets that are meant to be kept forever…

When Eliza Sullivan inherits an estate from a recently deceased aunt, she leaves behind a grievous and guilt-ridden past in New Orleans for rural England and a fresh start. Eliza arrives at her new home and finds herself falling for the mysterious lord of Havenwood, Malcolm Winfield. Despite the sinister rumors that surround him, Eliza is drawn to his melancholy charm and his crumbling, once-beautiful mansion. With enough love, she thinks, both man and manor could be repaired.

Not long into their marriage, Eliza fears that she should have listened to the locals. There’s something terribly wrong at Havenwood Manor: Forbidden rooms. Ghostly whispers in the shadows. Strangely guarded servants. And Malcolm’s threatening moods, as changeable as night and day.

As Eliza delves deeper into Malcolm’s troubling history, the dark secrets she unearths gain a frightening power. Has she married a man or a monster? For Eliza, uncovering the truth will either save her or destroy her.

(Goodreads book profile here)


Review:

I read this book in one sitting – and I was completely enthralled.

Paulette’s grasp on prose, character and atmosphere was what made this book for me, giving me strong Daphne du Maurier vibes. She has a knack for picking verbs that both carries the atmosphere of a scene (“furred with hoarfrost”, “the passageway snarled”, “tucked into her eggs”, “walls crawled around the edges of her eyes”), while also providing you with a subtle understanding of her characters without shoving it in your face. Rather, she demands that you pay attention to the details and wait around for them to be explained. Which you’ll happily do. In fact, the mystery of the book is built up around the characters, as is the custom of the gothic genre, and Paulette has created delightfully intricate characters that reveal themselves to the reader at just the perfect pace to keep you hungry for more, yet satisfied with your current scraps.

To continue with the mystery of the book, I was left with definite clues that kept me guessing throughout the book, yet the plot twists were so well-crafted that I could never quite pinpoint the how and the why – even if I could pinpoint the what. I particularly loved how Paulette used twists as diversion tactics, planting an obvious twist for me to focus on so I’d miss the subtler twist hiding behind it. Layered mysteries; that takes skill. I had complete faith that the many twists would make sense at the end of the book, like a perfect crescendo, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Then there’s the romance. While the romance isn’t always at the center of the plot, it remains the emotional backbone of the story as a whole. Like I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the book is built up around the characters, like all good gothic novels, so it’s no surprise that romantic angst is prominent throughout most of the book while the romance itself takes a backseat at times. More so than many other gothic novels I’ve read, in fact. I was far more interested in seeing the protagonist’s marriage fall apart than I was in seeing it come to life. Romance readers should take note that the sex scenes were fade-to-black (or artfully implied in-scene), so if you’re looking for a (gothic) romance with high heat levels, you might be disappointed.

Lastly, there’s the research. So much research has gone into this book and it absolutely shines, adding enough plausibility to the setting that I felt transported to the world and the time within the first few pages alone. And, yes, I had to look up plenty of objects and fashions, which tells me the research is solid. The same goes for the feminist and LGBTQIA elements, which all felt plausible for the time and place. They ended on happier notes, no less, adding a hopefulness to the book that was a nice breather from the heavier themes of assault, violence, self-harm and suicidal ideation befitting of the genre.

If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Mexican Gothic, and Crimson Peak, then this book is for you.


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