Time travel is one of the ultimate and oldest science fiction tropes but when done well can also be one of the most fun (think Back to the Future). Ren Hutchings’ debut Under Fortunate Stars uses its time travel premise in a space opera setting spectacularly well and so long as readers are not too hung up on untangling bootstrap paradoxes they will have a blast with this.
Under Fortunate Stars opens with down at heel smugglers Jereth Keeven and Eldric Leesongronski picking up a paying passenger and a prisoner and running from Union forces in their ship Jonah before being sucked into a mysterious rift in space. The two and their passengers are also fleeing a generations long battle against humanity by an implacable alien enemy known as the Felen. At the same time, the crew of the research ship Gallion also find themselves in the rift and rescue the battered cargo craft and its crew. Only the crew of the Gallion are from 152 years in the future, a future of peace with the Felen after a truce that was negotiated by a group now known as the Fortunate Five. In the Gallion’s history books, Leesongronski was on of the Five who travelled on a ship called Jonah. Only none of the Jonah’s crew match up to the hagiographic historical record. But before history can be saved the two crews need to work together to work out how to escape from the Rift and return to their own times before their power reserves run out and they all die.
This set up in no way reflects the sheer enjoyment in reading Under Fortunate Stars. Hutchings delivers a diverse cast of fascinating, conflicted characters and throws them together in a seemingly impossible situation. The Fortunate Five are revered characters, particularly Leesongronski, but that is more due to carefully constructed personas after the fact. Part of the enjoyment of this set up is both learning the shady and tragic backstories of the crew of the Jonah and watching how this experience changes them. On the other side of the ledger, the narrative focusses on two of the crew of the Gallion who have their own pasts and issues thrown into relief by the situation.
Overall though, the vibe of Under Fortunate Stars is one of barely controlled chaos and personal growth. Hutchings very quickly builds her world and established the stakes before she starts throwing curveballs at her protagonists leading to plenty of cliffhangers and on-the-fly solutions to life or death situations. But she never loses sight of her characters and it is their worlds and interactions that really drive this novel.
On shelves full of sequels and series, Under Fortunate Stars is a stand alone that builds a rich universe and delivers a full and satisfying story within it. Hutchings effectively plays with some well worn time travel and space opera tropes – wormhole travel, interstellar colonisation, long running alien wars – and delivers something fresh and original with them. And given that this is a debut, it also heralds the introduction of an exciting new voice in the speculative fiction.