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Some of the best science fiction stories explore the nature of humanity. Some of the best romances feature a couple learning to compromise. Sometimes, if we're really lucky, a book like this comes along which combines both.
It's five hundred years or so in the future and Sophia (call her Sam) McLaren and her brother Martin, are apparently "ordinary" humans, living life as best they can on Earth. Martin suffers from an unpleasant illness, and Sam has pretty much put her life on hold to care for him. So it's with a great deal of surprise and a dollop of misgiving that Sam agrees to follow Martin and his new alien friend to the community of planets near the center of the galaxy. The use of wormholes as galactic "subways" is a tried and true science fiction device; having your heroine barf up her breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the way, is not as expected and it's moments like these that add a delightful touch of reality to an otherwise unreal situation.
Sam and Mart are themselves considered aliens once they arrive at their destination, and backward ones at that! Any society that requires everyone to wear short hair under penalty of imprisonment leaves lots of room for improvement, and within a short time, Sam finds she is the one making suggestions! Here is where the charm in this tale makes its presence felt. By simply being her usual, friendly "human" self, Sam wins over the head of the warlike and violent Uortzk, and impresses the mighty JorVaal, leader of the planet. In spite of the fact that the original residents of this planet came from Earth, JorVaal regards Sam as an annoying and ignorant Terran, and can't quite understand why she has interrupted his usual daily occupations.
Thus the scene is set for romance, against the backdrop of alien landscapes and the threat of interplanetary extinction. The physics is well thought out; the gentle homage to Arthur C. Clarke's Rama books is noted, the classical Roman references are perfectly placed, and the aliens are every bit as alien as they should be. But the science fiction, interesting though it is, does not obscure the real story, which is JorVaal and Sam. The words "irresistible force" and "immovable object" come to mind - JorVaal is possessed of enormous natural arrogance and self-confidence, yet allows his great-great-grandmother to call him "Joe". Sam is virginally naive, yet expects the people she meets to be friendly and helpful - and of course they are, in spite of themselves!!! Their clash over sexual habits is delightful, although I have to confess that I would have liked a little more sizzle when they finally discovered their mutual passions. The setting was perfect, but their sensuality seemed a little suppressed given the rather blunt nature of mating habits on Xaspaar.
Choosing to read a science fiction romance can be a risky proposition - few authors can blend the science and the passion to produce a book that is well-rounded in both genres. I'm happy to say that Ms. Knight has indeed accomplished this feat - the world of Xaspaar may be alien, but the emotions of the lovers are basically as human as they can be. Perhaps that is part of the charm of this tale - to think that even after experiencing the wonders that the galaxy has to offer, it still all boils down to love!!