Home Books Fortuna: by Kristyn Merbeth

Fortuna: by Kristyn Merbeth

Given the current dystopian world in which we are living, it’s hard not to view modern life as a sort of sci-fi plot come to life. A planet ravaged by a ruthless virus poised to wipe out a sizable chunk of the population. Egocentric politicians running on a platform of lies, hatred and their own overinflated sense of self-worth. Countries closing off their borders to one another out of fear and mistrust. Were it not unfolding before us in real time, it would seem almost too on-the-nose for fiction. But, as we all know all too well, we are currently living in the darkest timeline, and what dystopian future sci-fi warned us about for decades has finally more or less begun to come to pass.

But the present age is little more than a distant memory for the Kaiser family in Kirstyn Merbeth’s Fortuna, which lives untold decades (maybe even centuries) in the future on a series of planets sought out by those leaving Earth behind when it finally became uninhabitable. Working as smugglers in a galaxy on the brink of interplanetary war, the Kaisers and their matriarch Auriga (or “Momma,” as she’s referred to throughout by her offspring) seek to keep themselves together as a family while maintaining a lucrative career. Given the xenophobic tendencies of the handful of planets now populated by the descendants of Earth, Auriga saw fit to give birth to at least one of her children on each the assorted planets to ensure smooth passage through customs and, subsequently, a broader reach in terms of the family’s smuggling operations. It’s a calculated, seemingly heartless move on the part of a character who seems to fully inhabit these traits.

Ultimately, though, we spend little time getting to know her, spending the bulk of the time cycling between alcoholic middle child Scorpia and her older war-veteran brother Corvus. Told in alternating first-person narrative, Fortuna keeps the reader locked into the perspective of the character (either Scorpia or Corvus) at the head of each chapter, making for a frustrating bit of back-and-forth sibling rivalry. Prior to enlisting in the never-ending war on his home planet of Titan, Corvus and Scorpia maintained a tight bond. But when it appeared he abandoned the family for the fight (Auriga’s duplicitous nature, we find, had a role in his “decision”), Scorpia’s perception of her brother all but shattered as she found herself moving up into his position and ostensibly into the role of future captain of their ship, the Fortuna.

All of this is to say that a great deal of Fortuna is spent with characters mistrusting one another, attempting to guess the other’s motives and generally being pissed off at one another when a simple conversation would suffice to help smooth matters out. Being stuck with the two characters can be somewhat exhausting. This is particularly true when the population of Titan is destroyed by an alien technology delivered to the planet by the Kaisers that manages to spare only the two elder siblings and two of their sisters. We’re forced to mope along with Corvus as he recounts over and over again how he feels he let his fellow soldiers and Titans down.

Meanwhile, Scorpia suffers from classic middle-child syndrome, attempting to reconcile her perceived status in her mother’s eyes. Always getting into trouble when it’s more often than not wholly avoidable, Scorpia is indeed a fuck-up, but one who is at least attempting to better herself and take over the family business in a way she sees fit. Throw in some interplanetary politics and assorted social customs in addition to the expository character development, and you’ve got a fair amount of the world-building that is always required within the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Thankfully, Merbeth’s prose isn’t unnecessarily overwrought in its world-building (each of the planets and their inhabitants is generally described within the context of the action, making for a smooth transition) and tends to flow from action sequence to action sequence even when the character development threatens to bog down the narrative.

Circling back to the old sci-fi standby of the dystopian future, it can be hard at times to not view Fortuna through a more modern lens, particularly with passages like the following in which Scorpia discusses the virus currently ravaging one of the new worlds: “We don’t know what’s happening out there, or how it’s spreading. It’s possible we’re already infected with something and it just hasn’t hit us yet. But it’s also possible we’re not, and another minute here could change that. I’m painfully aware of every gust of wind bringing swirling dust and tiny ice particles into the ship, the danger in each breath I take.

It’s unsettling how on-the-nose this passage is in capturing the spirit of 2020 (the book was published in November 2019). This—coupled with Gaia’s president Leonis, who runs on a platform of xenophobia, sewn discontent and general narcissism—makes Fortuna sound like an alternate-reality version of this year, with a little bit of smuggling and space travel thrown in to help make these seemingly impossible scenarios seem just that much more so. Fortuna may, like many a sci-fi novel, rely on previously-established tropes (it can be hard not to think of Scorpia as a sort of drunk, female version of Han Solo). But its ability to conjure the present moment is uncanny and unsettling, making for as enjoyable a read as one could expect given the subject matter and its unintended relevance to the modern age.

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