Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth


Thank you to Orbit for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Series: Nova Vita Protocol #1
Release date: 
November 5th, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Published in 2019

Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon

Execution: ⭐⭐⭐
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐

When I left the army, I felt cracks forming beneath my surface. Now, I fear that I’m on the verge of breaking. And this would be a terrible time to shatter.

Fortuna’s premise snagged me in an instant – a whole family of space smugglers! Devastating massacres! A young, roguish captain vying for power! How could I resist? Yet, while it didn’t disappoint… neither did it impress. Advertised as “Perfect for fans of Becky Chambers and Catherynne M. Valente,” I came in expecting both a fascinating, non-conventional setting combined with a cast of truly lovable and kind characters. Ultimately, the characters were decent, the setting cliche, and the plot mostly straightforward and with a few straggling ends. Many interesting ideas, such as recovery from child abuse/neglect, were only touched on briefly at best and stranded high and dry at worst. 

The story is told across two point of view characters: Scorpia and Corvus Kaiser. Scorpia is in her mid-twenties, an alcoholic, and has a severely inflated sense of her own capabilities. It’s rare to see female characters who aren’t even slightly sympathetic, so this was somewhat refreshing; however, it also meant I struggled to connect with her in a meaningful way. Corvus, her brother, is closer to thirty and bears all the scars of a soldier. 

Within the first few chapters, Scorpia attempts to smuggle an illegal plant from the jungle planet, Deva, across the solar system to the desert planet, Gaia. Naturally, this goes horrifically wrong. Fortunately, her mother, captain of the titular Fortuna, manages to get her out of trouble by cutting a deal with the planet’s leader. From here, Scorpia’s decisions continue to be out of touch and predicated on the idea that everything will go perfectly to plan. As the book progresses, the character growth seems to exist not in her learning from her plans and developing actual tactical knowledge… but rather from her plans somehow starting to work, despite still being the same hare-brained style shenanigans she was doing from the very beginning. Her schemes are ones I would expect from a teenager, not a mid-twenties adult. Her character felt incredibly juvenile given her age and the quest that is thrust upon her. 

‘“Whoa, whoa, this is yours,” I say, pushing it back. My heart is starting to hammer. I’m majorly screwed if I get caught here, especially without my family to back me up. Plants from Deva are a class-one contraband item on Gaia. If I’m caught with one, there’s only one punishment: death. Off-worlders don’t even have a legal right to a trial. “You just bought it. It belongs to you.”

“We haven’t finalized the deal!” Shey protests, sending the box sliding back across the table. “

We were about to.” Push.

“You’re the criminal, you take it!” Push.

“I’m an off-worlder, you take it!”’

Corvus, on the flip side, is characterized early on as “the smart one.” Scorpia spends a great deal of time trying to prove she’s just as good as him, which… again, feels quite juvenile. Corvus is battling his own demons, and his little sister is the least of his worries. His home planet, Titan, is locked in a civil war with no end in sight, and he has just completed his three years of mandatory service. He struggles with PTSD and the attitudes imparted on him by their abusive mother. Unfortunately, I did not find this to be a particularly good portrayal of PTSD; often, it seemed more like a convenient plot device than a sympathetic and knowledgeable example of a serious and real mental illness. 

‘“I don’t want to die here.” His cheeks flush with shame. Only on Titan would that admission be said with such a self-loathing expression. “I don’t want to be another death in a never-ending war.” He looks down. “And I will be, if I stay. A fifty-fifty chance would be miles better than what I have here.”’

I would have liked to see more screen time for the other members of the family: Lyre, Andromeda, and Apollo. Andromeda and Apollo are the family’s muscle – they’re twins, and they’re always spoiling for a fight. Often, they felt more like cardboard cut-outs than actual people, which was disappointing given that I felt their points of view would be interesting. Their shared dynamic would have been fun to explore. Similarly, Lyre is the quiet, younger sister. She is the mechanic and seems to be the kindest of the family. Although towards the end she’s given a very small bit of characterization, she doesn’t have much of an arc. 

Their mother,  Auriga, is rarely described despite playing a major part in the story. She abused all five of her children both physically and emotionally. Again, this is not explored in a meaningful way. While Scorpia has a small come-to-God moment where she attempts to break the cycle of abuse, it’s not something that is acknowledged on a larger scale. Auriga hit them, withheld affection, and created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. She pitted her children against one another such that they felt she was the only constant in her lives. This could have made for an intensely emotional and interesting story… if only it had been fleshed out and expanded upon. 

The setting, too, suffered from being half-baked. One of my pet peeves in space operas and science fiction is when a planet is reduced to a single biome and a single government. Fortuna heavily leaned on this trope: Deva, the jungle planet. Titan, the ice planet. Gaia, the desert planet. Nibiru, the ocean planet… etc etc. It gets old real fast. Gaia is mentioned as being tidally locked, yet we’re expected to believe that the full face of the planet with sunlight is habitable. Quite frankly, the whole book easily could have taken place on just one planet with airships instead of spaceships and with the current planets being countries. It would have been much more believable and significantly less cliche. 

The political aspects of the plot often end up drifting away at loose ends. On Titan, one of the premier generals seeks to recruit Corvus to commit treason in order to end the war. Spoiler: this goes absolutely nowhere. Many key plot points also beggar belief – am I really supposed to expect that Scorpia somehow became romantically involved with the son of a rival smuggler captain and sneaks away every time they have a martial engagement for some steamy sex? I’m just not convinced – and I’m really not convinced the Fortuna’s crew of six somehow manages to never lose a single soul in any of these battles given that the other ship has a crew of at least thirty or more pirates. There are many instances such as this which feel engineered to advance the plot at the expense of believability. 

‘A shocking amount of dead pirates are piled in the cargo bay in front of her, none even close to reaching her. Their bodies are so thoroughly riddled with holes that Momma’s weapon must have been at work. Bile rises in my throat at the sight. Usually, our skirmishes don’t end with quite so many bodies, but it seems Momma really wasn’t screwing around this time.’

Throughout the novel, the remnants of a former civilization, Primus, and the dangers of the weapons they left behind feature heavily. Each planet has a varying attitude towards Primus tech: some look on it with distrust, while others embrace it. I was eager to learn more about the Primus civilization, especially when Corvus encounters one of their spaceships in the first few chapters. The ship is organic with a beating pulse, and we all know how dear to my heart good squishy scifi is. However, this is the only up close and personal view of Primus tech the reader is allowed. 

‘There, dangling from the ceiling, is the power source I’ve been seeking. Slim black cords snake into it from both sides and from above, holding it in suspension. With each pulse of the orb, the cords shiver, a movement that travels down their lengths and continues to ripple through the walls and ceiling. The room is moving around me, pulsing in tune with the power source, like it’s the ship’s ancient, still-beating heart. When another, larger pulse occurs, the orb glows so brightly I have to cover my eyes.’

Had this been a debut novel, I would have been willing to cut Kristyn Merbeth a bit more slack. Although this is her first foray into science fiction, Merbeth has also written a post-apocalyptic trilogy. I expected just a bit more from a seasoned author than I received in Fortuna. 

Recommended for fans of:

Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Let me know in the comments below!


Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

5 thoughts on “Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth

    1. It happens! Not every book is going to be my cup of tea, though I hope that perhaps someone else reading about it will find these things to be a bit more up their alley. 🙂 I took a chance on this one, but I guess the odds weren’t in my favor this time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: