Nix, short for Phoenix, goes to sleep one night a normal boy with normal aspirations and a keen interest in art. During the middle of the night, he wakes with a horrible burning sensation on his leg and a glorious tattoo depicting his namesake. The tattoo means one thing: he is chosen. Chosen to serve at a prestigious monastery where multi-dimensional art is used to communicate with people and, indeed, to shape their very world view. Nix cannot wait to depart, even though his initiation won’t be for several years yet. He immediately begins following the chaste Principles of Purity in preparation for his journey, trusting the longstanding tradition that denial of physical pleasure enhances the art, which enhances the Great Ruler, which therefore enhances…everything.
Zadra attends the same learning center as Nix. He has watched and admired from afar, but knowing Nix’s status as Chosen means Zadra could never and would never act on his powerful attraction—including touching a Chosen for fear of sending one of them into the sexual frenzy their kind is known for. Still, he cannot help but seek out Nix’s company. From tutoring to saving the younger man from a vicious beating from a jealous classmate, Zadra grows more and more attached to Nix. One fateful day, he offers Nix a ride home on his sky port bike. That momentous day these two finally make physical contact and while Zadra and Nix are just barely able to keep themselves from destroying Nix’s purity vows, both of them go careening off into what’s called the craving—days or even weeks of intense longing that turns both of them nearly inside out with desire. Yet Zadra’s father cruelly sends his son off to consummate his destiny among the stars and Nix goes to the monastery. Thrown across the galaxies, their hearts still yearn for one another…but there is no guarantee they can ever fulfill their destiny as soul mates.
Meanwhile, fellow initiates Riva and Eros form an unlikely friendship en route to the monastery. Hailing from an environmentally ravaged planet famed for it’s lethal radiation, Riva is pleased Eros doesn’t reject him outright. Indeed, the feeling is mutual. Unlike nearly all others of his kind, Eros only wishes for a monogamous relationship with someone to whom he can form a “heart link,” even though the practice is all but illegal on his home planet. Everyone knows forming a heart link will only endanger the life of one partner if the other partner dies. Nevertheless, Eros is immediately drawn to Riva. Together, the two find happiness together despite the forced celibacy at the monastery.
When the monks discover just how flagrantly Riva and Eros have broken the rules, the two initiates are isolated from one another. Riva has only a small window of opportunity to act if he is to save himself and his beloved Eros from the cruelness of the monks. Yet he’s riddled with doubt as to whether Eros would want to sacrifice his art and leave the monastery, just as much as he’s doubtful someone as glorious as Eros would ever truly be satisfied with someone as backward as Riva. In the end, Riva can only follow his heart and hope everything will work out for him and for Eros.
Oddly, I was mostly entertained by this book. There is a fun combination of familiar themes like star-crossed lovers (Phoenix/Zadra and Riva/Eros), forbidden fruit (Phoenix’s status as a Chosen One), evil disguised as good (those lecherous, duplicitous monks) to name a few, most of which work well together and enough of a character base to keep the reader interested even when the outcomes are fairly obvious.
Phoenix/Zadra provide a lot of angst fodder. We know that Phoenix is a Chosen from the get go and watch him beg his family to help him follow the so-called principles of purity, going so far as to get a chastity device. Meeting Zadra at the learning center (i.e. school) is the first time Phoenix has to deal with the consequences of his choice. Personally, I really enjoyed watching him continually convince himself that all the emotions and desires he feels for Zadra have to be sublimated in the name of being a Chosen. Even better is that we also clearly see Zadra falling for Phoenix, but definitely respecting physical boundaries (because skin-to-skin contact might send the two into a sexual frenzy they call “craving”). Yet all that gets thrown out the window by BOTH characters at what turns out to be the very last time they are together until they’ve been well-established in both their future career paths. Bringing Phoenix and Zadra together with a steamy make-out session then ripping them apart definitely built the tension in my book. I was very much looking forward to when and how these two would reunite.
In the meantime, we spend the next chunk of the book focusing exclusively on the Riva/Eros story. Having another set of primary characters definitely helps flesh out the book’s universe…and it is large. Specifically, each of the principle characters’ worlds gets a pretty good description and what marks these worlds as notable is definitely reflected later in the story. For example, Riva comes from a planet that is saturated in radiation. This makes him a social pariah to most everyone else and we see him being treated poorly by other characters based on his planet of origin despite the fact that, in order to even board the transport to get off his plant and go to the monastery, he has been thoroughly de-radiated. Eros’s introductory passages also highlight what is normal in his culture (sexually promiscuous) and how he falls far short of fitting into that norm (wanting to be monogamous). He also faces discrimination based on others’ perceptions of Eros’ home planet—namely that Eros must be a sex fiend only out for a good time and incapable of love.
So this book has got the drama in spades. One thing that was a let down, however, was the writing.On the one hand, I did like the content of the world-building and the various relationships and Allora’s dedication to submersing the reader in the character’s world with new names for old things (sky port for a flying motorcycle-like vehicle, thoughtfully selected exclamations (Galaxy!) and expletives (Frakking space dung!). On the other, the actual writing felt unpolished and, at times, a shade immature. This impression was not helped by the pacing of the action. As someone who’s written stories (fanfic) myself, I definitely understand having all these ideas for what you want to have happen with your characters…but finding it hard to figure out how to link these events together on-page. This is exactly what I felt happened with the storytelling in The Craving. There weren’t any individual scenes I was disappointed with, but there were plenty of times it felt like Allora just couldn’t figure out how to smoothly transition between them…and so she sort of…didn’t. It left the prose feeling jumbled to me.
There are only two big disappointments. First, the monks. There are several scenes that highlight how the once grand establishment of the monks at the art monastery have fallen from trusted hands that guided young artists to lecherous, power-hungry men. Their not-so-secret desire for power puts the monks into direct opposition to the existing power regime, which is controlled by a Great Ruler who is generally described as benevolent and shown to be so on-page in his treatment of our main couples. As the story winded down, I kept expecting an eleventh hour something from these monks…but nothing came of it. Which left me at a loose ends, given how much I felt these monks featured in the minds of our main characters at the end of the book.
Second, the art. It seems sort of silly at this point, but I never really understood what all the ART was about. It’s clearly explained that artists who travel to the monastery learn how to control and enhance their art to benefit others…but we never really see that in action en masse. On a small scale, friends of Phoenix are moved by the works he created and the Great Ruler commissions several pieces that are equally moving. Yet what any of this means in the context of the multi-world universe Allora’s built…is never really explained. If I were to be cynical (and yes, I will be), it seems more like a tool of mind control. You know, it’s kind of stunning these bad-apple monks didn’t push their advantage at training the best of the best of these talented artists and just ART their way into usurping power from the Great Ruler.
Ahh, well. Maybe there will be a sequel to cover all THAT.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book as a light read…not exactly fluffy given all the angst, but if you’re an angst fan like I am, then it’s just the kind of stuff you love to wallow over. It’s got some pretty thorough world building full with interesting focus on sexual norms and diversity therein. If you like stories that have multiple main character pairings and focus on pivotal character moments, you’d probably like this.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.