Rating: 4 stars
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Humans have poisoned the Earth and are desperate for other worlds to colonize. Now at war with Caeorleia, a rich world whose resources they covet, Earth forces will use anything and anyone to reach their goal. Human Ryker lost his family and his home as the war raged on, further depleting Earth’s final resources. Seeing an advertisement for volunteers for a science project on an alien world, he agreed, thinking that it was just a benign experiment to see if humans could live peacefully with Caeorleians.
But the reality was a 5-year horror in which he became an unwilling scientific experimental subject, tortured and surgically altered by sadistic scientists until he is now changed into something less than Caeorleian but no longer human. Then the scientists have one more surprise for him. Aboard the science ship with Ryker is an alien, a captured Caeorleian, Seral Iorflas. By injecting Ryker with Seral’s blood, the scientists hope to finish the transformation and use Ryker as a spy against the very aliens he now resembles.
But Ryker isn’t human any more and his treatment as an experiment has shattered his loyalties. A blood bond forms between Ryker and Seral that grows increasingly stronger when they join together against the scientists that hold them. As the war between Earth and Caeorleia intensifies, where will Ryker’s heart and loyalties lie?
The Experiment is the first story in a new series by Alicia Nordwell and it is one guaranteed to hold your attention into the second story and beyond. Nordwell sets the stage by bringing the reader into the horror that Ryker’s life has become as an experimental animal aboard a medical ship headed towards Caeorleia. The ship journey has taken five years, during which Ryker was tortured, experimented on without anesthesia or any other humane medical protocol, starved, and raped repeatedly by his captures and guards. At first there were 12 of them, but we learn through Ryker’s memories that their numbers have dwindled, the others unable to stand the abuse and experiments. Told from Ryker’s POV, the unrelenting pain and horror that Ryker has gone through and is currently feeling is brought immediately home to the reader. And although the excruciating details are mentioned in passing, we do not have to actually “be there in the moment” during the actual operations, thankfully. The descriptions we are given are enough to bring up the worst of Nazi Germany and Mengele’ notorious experiments.
One of the best things about The Experiment is Nordwell’s world building. She has come up with some ingenious and wonderful creations and rituals for Caeorleia and its denizens. I was charmed by the yellow flowers that moved at will, looking like a golden carpet floating over the landscape. So too the Sampanga trees, unmoored by roots, taking trace bits of energy from beings around it and fleeing if someone or something hurts them. Even the food Nordwell created for the various Caeorleians to eat sounded quite marvelous. Nordwell makes it extremely plausible that someone from a ruined Earth would want not only to conquer it, but to stay there, amidst fresh air, lush foliage, and clean water, no matter how strange.
Nordwell’s aliens too are fascinating. They are covered with swirling designs and are drawn to partners with similar patterns as well as pheromones, much like many species around us. Once matched up, the bond is cemented through a blood exchange which changes each partner’s chemistry and initiates a final change in pattern for both beings, although in different areas of the body. I don’t want to reveal too much more about their physiology, but the author’s ability to tie in a reasonable explanation for Ryker and Seral’s bond through the Caeorlian physiology and the events that happen on board the ship really make this emotional bond between Ryker and Seral work for me. No instant love, which would have harmed her story. No unbelievable romance, but a clear scientific explanation that works and waits for the rest to follow.
Nordwell’s characters are appealing, accessible, and fascinating. It’s not just Ryker and Seral the reader will love, but Seral’s large family, including his birth mother, which just happens to be one of his “fathers,” again the explanation of which follows along several natural history examples of species either switching genders when needed or the several scientific speculations on male child bearing abilities. Plus all the rest of the sisters, brothers, and extended families that swirl around a royal compound such as Seral’s. The author used every bit of her 270 pages to lay out her world building, along with her characters and plots, while never forgetting to fold in the background science that supports some of her most basic building blocks.
There are some issues here that stood out, the first of which is her overuse of certain epithets. For example, she uses “small male” and “small man” to reference Ryker is found over and over again until their constant appearance becomes irritating. Less numerous (although not by much), as well as vexing, is Seral’s “little tziu” and “small tziu,” the term tziu being a Caeorlian word for mate. Although it might have several meanings as Nordwell throws in segments of the Caeorlian language she has created for the series as well. That language is both a positive and negative element for me. Ryker has been fitted with a “translator” of sorts by the scientists so he is able to communicate with the Caeorlians. But not all the words translate, including tziu, which have to be explained. That makes complete sense. Not so later on when Ryker uses the word “love” and get it back in return. The Caeorlians have no translator, nor has Ryker explained human love or its terminology, so why is it being repeated back? And why is it understood to begin with? Sigh. Oh the problems that can arise in world building if not all the elements are accounted for.
But all those issues are blanketed by the emotional impact of Ryker’s story and the challenges he, Seral, and the rest of the Caeorlian world face against the warships and armies of Earth. We are gripped by their defiance as the Earth forces attack. And as they race to find some weapon, some plan that can be used to stop the war and the armies, we are there with them, holding our breath to see what will happen next.
The author has many twists for the reader here in her story, none of which I either anticipated or will reveal. That pleasure I leave to you. The second book in the series will appear this Fall 2014. I will be happily awaiting the release date. In the meantime, if you are a lover of science fiction or romance, then this is the book for you. Pick it up and settle in for a wonderfully engaging story.
Cover artist Christine Griffin. I love everything about this cover, from the colors to the design. Just outstanding and works perfectly for the story inside.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.