Starship captain and Yesri prince Varo Kutchif has grown up leading a very privileged life and with it, a certain world view. Part of that world view includes the mindset that anyone from the planet Helkan is somewhere between complete heathen and utter animal. When Varo’s greedy father sends him on a mission to force trade with the famously introverted planet, no one misunderstands the subtext: succeed in making the much-needed deal or die trying.
Except fate has a way of twisting even the best-laid plans. Varo does fail at securing trade with the Helkans, but he also fails to die in the attempt at forcing their enemy’s hands. Instead, Varo ends up crashing into the planet and being taken prisoner by the sexiest man he’s ever laid eyes on—Adlar, assassin and elder brother to the Helkan king. The attraction is instantaneous and, shockingly, reciprocated.
As the days stretch into weeks, these dissimilar men test one another about their assumptions and how they see the world—not to mention their place in it. The stark sexual yearning gradually morphs into true feelings…but just when the near-unthinkable union of a Helkan and a Yesri takes place, a jealous semi-friend wreaks havoc with the couple. Soon, Varo finds himself on a one-way shuttle trip back to his father and playing pawn to the man’s endlessly grasping attempts at “earning” money.
It’s a race against the clock for Adlar to figure out who set them up and how to reverse the damage—before it’s too late and the Yesri king auctions his son off to the highest bidder.
The circumstances that bring Adlar and Varo together really set the scene for me. Obviously, being an “enemies to lovers” kind of book, this means they had to overcome a certain level of animosity. The story is told from Varo’s point of view (albeit in third person omniscient), so it’s easy/tempting to declare him the “right” character and Adlar the “wrong” one. However, the way the two cultures these men represent actually behave shows the reverse is true—which is also patently visible in the text.
One element about this extreme opposites attract that I found somewhat annoying is how heavy handed some of these cultural/socio-economic differences are. On the one hand, I not-so-secretly totally agree with Varo’s a-ha moment when he realizes his planet’s way of life (industry at the expense of literally everything else) is not only at odds with that of Adlar’s, but also not in anyone’s best interest save a few. It mimics some of the very real social issues facing, well, a lot of people in real life. On the other hand, what started off as a grubby money grab by Varo’s father (who is the king of a country, not the leader of an entire planet) turned into this all-encompassing thing (that affects the whole planet, not just the country of a king). It just didn’t feel like the environmental bent was well established throughout the story.
I’ll take a break here to point out this obvious connection: there is a lot about the aesthetic of Helkan and the environmental turn the plot takes that mimics the aesthetic/plot of Avatar. (Read: if that appeals to you AND you like hot man-on-man sex, then you’ll probably be tickled with this story!)
I lied: there is one more element about the extreme opposites that I found annoying. The two main characters are visually opposites. Varo is tanned with white-blond hair and Adlar is white-pale with black hair. While I’m not opposed to such striking differences, it does feel a bit too cutesy-cutesy for my tastes. Also, I thought this artificially created MORE differences for the characters to see past on-page, but all I think it really does is rob the characters a chance to find they have something in common (well, I suppose there’s potential for marveling that the Helkan are bipeds and have speech and all that, but all of that is taken for granted apparently).
That said, one part of the enemies-to-lovers trope that I thought was executed very well was showing how Varo and Adlar are hyper attracted to each other, but still pretty much repulsed by these feelings. The reader really gets a feel for the almost loathing from Varo’s vantage point (again, omniscient narration from his side, so we’re privy to his inner thoughts). Church does a fine job developing these contrasting feelings and offers a few choice on-page examples that show the reader how each man’s estimation of the other shifts over time—despite the raging attraction they both feel.
There is also a large supporting cast. Some play meatier roles than others—such as Adlar’s brother and the quasi-escort Maylar. Alder’s brother is a bit more fluff, but does serve to pad out the world/culture building that helps the reader get a good picture of what life is like for Helkans (or at least a Helkan king). Maylar is pivotal to the action and I rather enjoyed how he works his way into the story and his involvement in the climax of the action. That said, I was a bit disappointed his thread didn’t get wrapped up with anything more creative than a version of “rocks fall, everyone dies” type of inexplicable simplicity. Still, he served his purpose and he served it pretty well.
If you’re looking for a space opera along the lines of Star Wars…this might not quite fit the bill as there is a distinct lack of battles and things of that nature. That said, there is not a small amount of sci-fi bits like starships, futuristic technology, and intergalactic goings-on that help or hinder the players in the story. The love story is a curious blend between enemies-to-lovers and Stockholm effect (only insofar as Varo is, in truth, a prisoner). That said, I didn’t get any vibes that he falls for Aldar because he’s a prisoner nor is Aldar his only human-esque contact) that pulls on the melodramatic heart strings.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.