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Literature / Paradox Trilogy

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The Paradox Trilogy is a Science Fiction series by Rachel Bach.

Deviana Morris is a mercenary who dreams of joining the Devastators, an elite guard of soldiers in Powered Armor who directly serve the Sacred King of Paradox. Since membership in the Devastators is invitation-only, Devi decides to beef up her resume with a tour of duty as private security on Captain Caldswell's freighter Glorious Fool. Glorious Fool has a legendary reputation as a cursed ship, getting into more trouble on the average freight run than most ships see in war zones, and surviving for one year under Caldswell is considered to be worth five years of any other military service. Devi doesn't believe in curses, and joins the crew of the Glorious Fool thinking it'll just be a job like any other. Then she meets the crew.

Caldswell, the captain, constantly changes course to meet with mysterious "clients" nobody else gets to meet. Basil, the navigator, is an insufferably superior alien who refuses to work for anyone but Caldswell. Nova, the sensor technician, is a psychic space-hippie. Hyrek, the doctor, is a former butcher turned surgeon and outcast from his race. Ren, the captain's daughter, rarely speaks and spends most of her time playing chess alone. Rupert, the cook is incredibly strong and unusually skilled at martial arts.

Against her better judgement, Devi can't help but investigate the mysteries surrounding the Glorious Fool's cursed luck and unusual crew. What she discovers thrusts her into the center of a conspiracy involving Eldritch Abominations which pose a threat to all life.

The trilogy consists of Fortune's Pawn, Honor's Knight, and Heaven's Queen.

This series includes examples of:

  • Agri World: Heaven's Queen has Atlas 35, a planet which Devi states has been "terraformed to within an inch of its life" in order to be a farm planet where every inch of land is suitable for crop cultivation.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: In Heaven's Queen. When Brenton is helping Devi infiltrate Dark Star Station, he shows her a passage to crawl through and she assumes that it's an air vent. Brenton tells her that the people who built the station weren't that stupid; the passage is a power conduit, and usually filled with plasma heated to thousands of degrees. They're only able to use it as a passage because of a power outage.
  • And I Must Scream: Maat's condition. Imprisoned since she was a child, insane and suffering, kept alive against her will by machines and a symbiont.
    Maat: Maat was the first prisoner, and her daughters are slaves. Nothing sets me free, not even the madness. Not anymore. Maat can kill millions, but she can't even die. Why can't I die?
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Devi fully believes that the Sacred King is capable of performing miracles, but doesn't believe in curses or psychic powers. She's surprised when plasmex, which she'd dismissed as a superstition akin to gremlins or black magic, turns out to be a well-known and well-documented phenomenon on worlds other than Paradox.
  • Astral Projection: One of Maat's psychic abilities is to project an intangible avatar of herself anywhere in the vicinity of one of her daughters.
  • The Atoner: Brenton's motivation is to atone for the sins he committed as an Eye.
  • Aura Vision: Nova's plasmex power allows her to perceive auras.
  • Barrier Maiden: The lelgis transformed Maat into one. She blocks the rift which phantoms used to enter the Universe.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: On the xith'cal tribe ship, Devi is prepared to use her last bullet to shoot herself rather than be eaten alive by the xith'cal.
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: The xith'cal have genetically engineered themselves so that males and females are specialized for different tasks, and are physically very different.
  • Blade Below the Shoulder: Devi's sword Elsie, which is embedded in her power armor and can extend or retract at will.
  • Centipede's Dilemma: Devi is able to subconsciously resist Evelyn's plasmex telekinesis until Evelyn points out to her that she's resisting. This causes Devi to realize that she doesn't know exactly how she's resisting it, which makes her resistance immediately fail.
  • Chess Motifs: The titles of the books, Fortune's Pawn, Honor's Knight, and Heaven's Queen, reference chess pieces of increasing value, reflecting protagonist Devi's rise in importance from a mere pawn in the first book to bearing the fate of the galaxy in the last. Devi also notices that Creepy Child Ren often plays chess games by herself. Ren always sets up the board with the black queen already captured; this represents Maat's imprisonment.
  • City Planet: Aeon worlds tend to be city planets, as their flocking instinct makes them desire high population density.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: In Heaven's Queen, Maat writes out a message for Devi using Devi's blood as ink. Despite the creepiness, Devi is touched, because it is a final message of gratitude Maat wrote before dying.
  • Creepy Child: Caldswell's daughter Ren is one. As is Branton's "daughter", Eleanor. They are part of an entire race of creepy children called "daughters", created using Maat.
  • Death Seeker: Maat. Insane from overuse of plasmex and kept alive against her will, her only desire is to die — and she doesn't care how many other people she has to take down with her to do it.
  • Deflector Shields: Devi and Cotter's armor includes personal forcefields which can protect them from a number of gunshots. Rupert also uses a personal forcefield when he pretends to hold Caldswell hostage for the security test.
  • Dying as Yourself: In Honor's Knight, Ren seems to regain her memories of being Yasmine just before dying.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Phantoms disrupt gravity, causing planets to tear themselves apart. The presence of a large phantom can destroy a planet in mere hours.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Phantoms, invisible and nearly indestructible beings of pure energy whose very presence on a planet can cause distressing effects on space and time.
  • Emotionless Girl: Caldswell's daughter, Ren. She spends most of her time playing chess by herself, and barely even reacts to anyone except Caldswell or Rupert.
  • Feudal Future: Paradox has a strict feudal system. In fact, the author has said that this is the out-of-story reason behind the name — the paradox of a technologically advanced world running a pre-spaceflight social system. (There's a different in-universe origin for the name, though.)
  • Fighting a Shadow: Phantoms have physical bodies which can be seemingly wounded, but their true nature is incorporeal beings of pure plasmex. No amount of physical damage to their bodies can kill them, not even complete nuclear immolation; so long as their plasmex remains, their bodies will simply reform.
  • Flaming Sword: Thermite blades. While impressive, they have a significant downside in that they burn out eighty seconds after being activated.
  • Friendly Sniper: Rashid, the merc hired by Devi to serve as security on the Glorious Fool.
  • Fusion Dance: Phantoms come in many different sizes, ranging from smaller than a finger to larger than a planet. It turns out many smaller phantoms can fuse together to form a larger one.
  • Gladiator Games: Gladiator games between contestants in powered armor are popular entertainment on Paradox. There are apparently two leagues; one which features legitimately dangerous contests of skill, and one which has scripted matches intended to show off the armor's abilities. Devi was offered the opportunity to be a gladiator, but declined because female gladiators are expected to wear Chainmail Bikini style "armor" rather than the real powered armor Devi loves using.
  • God-Emperor: The Sainted King of Paradox, who the author admits was inspired by the Warhammer40000's God-Emperor of Mankind.
  • Government Conspiracy: The Joint Investigatory Spatial Anomaly Task Force, the organization charged with battling phantoms. It was primarily founded by the Terran Republic, but because of the universal threat posed to all humans by phantoms, they are also allowed to wield near-absolute authority by the governments of territories which are independent from or even on hostile terms with the Republic.
  • Grenade Hot Potato: When some mercs throw a grenade at Devi during the fight on Falcon 34, she kicks it back at them before it explodes.
  • Healing Factor: Symbionts can heal from nearly anything that doesn't destroy their head.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:Thousands of phantoms join together to form one big one inside a space station, which then communicates telepathically with Devi (see Not Evil, Just Misunderstood below), allowing itself to be infected with the Stoneclaw virus and thus subjecting itself to a horrible death. The Lelgis also create a new queen with the intent that she would sacrifice herself to eliminate Devi and the Stoneclaw virus, but when push comes to shove the queen chickens out.
  • Hive Mind: The lelgis are believed to be one.
  • Hostile Terraforming: The preferred type of terraforming. Paradox uses robots to terrform planets for colonization, without much regard for indigenous species. The Terran Republic, by contrast, takes great care to catalogue all native life on potential colony worlds... then wipes it all out in favor of human-friendly organisms.
  • I Call It "Vera": Devi has a habit of naming her weapons. She calls her guns Sasha and Mia, and her swords Phoebe and Elsie. She even admits to herself that if one of her guns broke, she'd probably hold a funeral for it.
  • Instant Sedation: When Devi drugs Copernicus, he goes down in seconds.
  • Invisible Monsters: Phantoms, which are invisible to both sight and sensors.
  • Invisible to Normals: Phantoms, being composed of pure plasmex, are invisible except to a very few people: Maat, her daughters, and Devi after she becomes infected by the Stoneclaw virus.
  • Involuntary Battle to the Death: Reaper tries to execute Caldswell by forcing him and Brenton to fight to the death, using drugs to drive Brenton into a berserk rage.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: Occurs in Heaven's Queen. Aware that he's mortally wounded, Brenton stays behind at a control panel holding down a button so the others can escape.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Brenton implies that this has been the fate of many former employees of Caldswell.
  • Large and in Charge: The xith'cal tribe leader Reaper is significantly larger than the average xith'cal.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: At the end of Fortune's Pawn, Rupert has Ren erase select portions of Deviana's memory. Overheard conversations suggest that the method isn't perfect — people can get hints of their deleted memories, especially if shock and trauma is involved. Devi gets her memories restored after learning enough that Caldswell realises there's no point in keeping her in the dark.
  • The Law of Diminishing Defensive Effort: Devi is able to kill Anton Mikel because, after her initial attacks are stopped by his armor, he assumes that she is unable to harm him at all and stops bothering to block or dodge. Devi then locates a weak spot in his armor and is able to kill him with an attack he doesn't react to until it's too late.
  • Libation for the Dead: Devi performs one at the beginning of Honor's Knight in memory of a fallen comrade.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Symbionts. They're faster and stronger than even powered armor.
  • Lightning Gun: Charge throwers, which are designed to be non-lethal anti-armor weapons. They shoot lightning bolts which pass through shields and short out powered armor.
  • Living Lie Detector: Copernicus's plasmex power allows him to tell when someone lies to him.
  • Masquerade: The Eyes hide all existence of the phantoms from the general public, mind-wiping or killing anyone who learns the truth and even making up cover stories to explain the destruction of entire planets. Caldwell says it's because people would panic if they learned that an invisible, unkillable monster could rip the planet out from under them at any time. Brenton, by contrast, says that the cover-up is because the Eyes are afraid of being called to account for the horrible acts they've committed in the name of protecting humanity.
    If word of what they were doing got out, it wouldn't be panic over the phantoms that tore the universe apart, it would be rage. Rage over what was being done to those poor girls, rage that they had made us murderers, too, without our knowledge.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Devi and Rupert. It isn't known how long a symbiont might potentially live, but they show no signs of ageing and none have ever died of old age.
  • The Men in Black: The Joint Investigatory Spatial Anomaly Task Force, more commonly known as the Eyes. They are tasked with both killing phantoms and hiding their existence from the general public, including mind-wiping or killing those who learn too much.
  • Mercy Kill: In Honor's Knight, Deviana delivers a mercy-kill to Brenton's daughter, Enna.A large part of the third book is Devi trying to figure out how to mercy kill Maat without taking all of her daughters with her.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: When Devi gets her armor repaired, its quality and the fact that she has the same last name as a well-known Baron cause the shop owner to mistake her for nobility. Paradoxan law actually requires any peasant who is mistaken for nobility to immediately correct the person making the error; but since she's not on Paradox, Devi feels comfortable bending the rules a bit to get faster service.
  • Naming Your Colony World: Sparsely-inhabited planets like mining and research worlds get letters and numbers, while proper colonies get symbolic names. Paradox was originally named Paradise, the pronunciation changing over time.
  • Neck Snap: Symbionts are strong enough to kill people this way, and it seems to be one of their preferred tactics. Mabel and Rupert kill Rashid and Ren by snapping their necks, and Brenton says Rupert once snapped the necks of three daughters during a past battle.
  • No Biological Sex: Hyrek. The xith'cal are born neuter and choose to become male or female when they mature; Hyrek chose to remain neuter.
  • No Mouth: Symbionts have no mouths in their armored form, as their entire faces are covered with scales save for their eyes.
  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: The phantoms. Cut off from their home dimension by Maat's barrier maiden act, they are slowly starving to death due to lack of plasmex. They only gravitate to inhabited worlds because that's where the plasmex is, and can't control their other effects. All they really want is for someone to remove Maat so they can go home.
  • Older Than They Look: Symbionts don't age, so they look younger than they actually are. Rupert is 71, and Caldswell is over a hundred.
  • Planet Spaceship: Xith'cal have no colony worlds. They live on tribe ships, moon-sized spaceships which hold millions or even tens of millions of xith'cal.
  • Power Incontinence: Plasmex ability is initially tied to emotion; plasmex users need training to decouple them. Because the Stoneclaw virus is based on plasmex, it operates by the same principle, becoming active whenever Devi is angry.
  • Powered Armour: Devi has a custom power suit called the Lady Gray.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: Humanity only has one weapon against the phantoms, and it comes at a high price. Plasmex-sensitive children are kidnapped from their homes and have their personalities overwritten by Maat to become daughters, a process which inevitably results in their death within a few years.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Xith'cal have a reputation for this, due to their focus on hunting and honor. In fact, While it's generally true of male xith'cal, female xith'cal are extremely skilled scientists.
  • Psycho Serum: Devi's power armor includes a cocktail of painkillers and illegal combat stimulants, which it automatically injects if she suffers life-threatening injuries. The drugs cause lethal seizures within minutes, and are intended as a last-ditch measure to be used in a hopeless situation, allowing Devi to at least go down fighting.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Brenton sees every daughter he works with as a replacement golfish for Enna, even calling them by her name.
    Devi: That's your daughter, isn't it? Enna.
    Brenton: She's actually Mettou's daughter. I shot my last daughter years ago when she'd degenerated to the point where she was killing people in her sleep. But it makes no difference, they're all Enna to me.
  • Return to Shooter: When Devi shoots armor-piercing bullets at a lelgis, the lelgis catches them with a plasmex shield and flings them back at her.
  • Shoot Your Mate: In Honor's Knight, Caldswell tests Rupert's loyalty by asking him to shoot Devi. He does. It turns out to be an illusion.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Fishermarch, where Caldswell takes his crew for vacation, is an ocean planet. The only land is man-made floating islands.
  • Son of an Ape: When Basil first meets Devi, he refers to her as a monkey. He also later insults Nova this way.
  • Space Pirates: Devi has had many clashes with them while working as a mercenary. In a Shout-Out to Star Wars: A New Hope, one notorious space pirate hideout is called Kessel.
  • Space Sector: The Falcon Sector (which includes the planet Falcon 34) is an undeveloped area, with not even half of its worlds terraformed yet.
  • Stop, or I Shoot Myself!: In Honor's Knight, Devi negotiates by pointing a gun at her own head. It works, because she's carrying the last surviving strain of the Stoneclaw virus; if she dies, it'll be lost forever. Later, Caldswell negotiates the same way with Reaper's xith'cal; although Reaper does want Caldswell dead, he needs to do it himself, which requires that Caldswell not die just yet.
  • Superpowered Evil Side: Afflicts symbionts. The alien implant which grant a symbiont its powers can take control of the host's body in his sleep; while it isn't exactly sentient, it is full of bloodlust and hatred and will hurt anyone the host cares about if it can.
  • Super-Soldier: Symbionts are Terran super-soldiers created by implanting living alien tissue. They are extraordinarily fast and strong with a powerful healing factor to boot, but are only created in limited numbers because the implants can cause mental instability.
  • Tap on the Head: Devi is knocked out this way in Honor's Knight. It also turns out to be symbionts' main weakness: a blow to the right area of their head will reliably knock them unconscious. However, due to their thick armor, it has to be a very strong impact, such as a gunshot.
  • That's No Moon: The first time Devi sees a xith'cal tribe ship, she mistakes it for a moon.
  • To Serve Man: The xith'cal are an alien species that enjoy eating humans and regularly abduct them for foodstock.
  • Touch of Death: When the Stoneclaw virus is active, it kills any living thing its host touches.
  • Tranquilizer Dart: Devi is shot with tranquilizer darts in Heaven's Queen. Because of her resistance to sedatives, the first dart has little effect, and it takes four to bring her down.
  • Typhoid Mary: Devi becomes one after being infected with the Stoneclaw virus. The virus works by corrupting plasmex; Devi has so little plasmex herself that it will take months to kill her, but she can still spread it to others, who die almost immediately.
  • The Unpronounceable: Basil's real name consists of whistles and chirps.
  • The Unsmile: Ren's face is usually blank and emotionless. She only smiles on a couple of occasions, and Devi describes it as horrifying and painful to look at.
  • Walking Techbane: Moderate to large phantoms are walking techbanes. They cause any technology in their vicinity to malfunction.
  • Was It All a Lie?: Occurs early on in Fortune's Pawn, when Rupert gets close to Devi before playing the role of the hijacker in the security test. He admits afterwards that he was ordered to flirt with Devi beforehand in order to see if she'd be willing to shoot someone she liked, but that he also legitimately finds her attractive.
  • We Have Reserves: In Fortune's Pawn, Devi accuses Brenton of treating the men under his command as disposable meat-shields and ordering them to certain death. Brenton responds that Caldswell treats his own pawns the same way; Devi doesn't believe him, but learns in Honor's Knight that Brenton wasn't entirely lying.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Basil is the aeon version, dying his feathers to have the brown coloration of an aeon female rather than the gaudy colors of an aeon male. Not being familiar with aeon biology, Devi doesn't realize there's anything unusual about his coloration until he explains.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Maat, a powerful psychic, is said to have been driven mad by channeling more plasmex than any human was meant to contain. Symbionts are also prone to this, suffering mental instability as the price of the implants which grant them superhuman strength.