When we think of paranormal creatures, we tend to leap to the familiar: witches, werewolves, and wraiths, oh my! Vampires, gargoyles, and ghouls. But humans, too, can be magical and misunderstood. Telepaths and telekentics, or even the star of this book, empaths. People who can feel the emotions of the world around them, sensitive to the anger of a man on the street or the despair of a neighbor next door. Imagine living your life never knowing if your joy or fear was your own … or someone else’s.
Aiden is an empath, the result of genetic tinkering generations ago to produce human lie-detectors. Those experiments were successful and the first empaths were little more than property, given no rights and zealously guarded. Even today they remain a protected class, living quiet and private lives with security drones, watchful families, and a constant state of paranoia. In order to stay sane, an empath must bond with another human, an anchor, who can help them avoid the onslaught of so many emotions. An unbonded empath is at risk of kidnapping and assault in an effort to force them to anchor to their captor for, once bonded, an empath will do anything to keep their anchor happy. This has led to many empaths being abused as, once bonded, the link is permanent. Even should their anchor die, an empath must find another person willing to join with them or die themselves.
Aiden has come to his empathy late in life and his powers are progressing faster than expected. He must find himself an anchor or risk having the choice made for him. Max, Aiden’s cousin, works with Cole Gallagher who he holds in high esteem. Because Cole has no interest in being an anchor, Max thinks he might just be perfect and asks Cole to meet with Aiden. Cole has no interest in the responsibility of an empathic companion, with having to protect and care for someone who will literally do anything and everything to make their anchor happy. He wants an even partnership, a husband or wife who he loves, and who wants to spend the rest of their lives with him by choice, not biological necessity. But he accepts.
Meeting the young man is little enough of a favor and Max is desperate. It isn’t love at first sight, but it is attraction. Aiden is handsome, funny, intelligent, and there’s a definite spark between them. Cole, however, isn’t going to say yes after a five minute meeting, no matter how friendly Aiden is, and so they begin to date. They can’t go out in public for fear of Aiden being overwhelmed, so it’s snacks at home watching the game or going swimming in a secluded lake. Strangely, Cole — who once lied to a girlfriend in order to go see a game (front row seats!) rather than go on a date — doesn’t mind missing out on the public spectacle. Spending time with Aiden is more fun, and the more they get to know each other, the less frightening the idea of being Aiden’s anchor becomes.
One date leads to a second, to a fifth, both of them aware that the clock is ticking down, but when Aiden is kidnapped, Cole realizes he may have waited too long to tell Aiden how he feels. If the police can’t find him in time, Aiden might find himself bonded to a complete stranger and Cole will not only lose his friend, he might lose the man he’s fallen in love with.
This book reads a lot like classic science-fiction with the story being more of an exploration of life with and as an empath rather than a story about an empath. The characters personalities, and the romance, take a back seat to the philosophical and ethical implications of mental and bodily autonomy, as well as the reality of taking responsibility for another person who, once bonded to you, will be unable to either leave you or displease you. There is so much world building that the characters suffer for it, but the ideas behind the stories are successful and interesting enough to hold my attention.
We see the story, and Aiden, through Cole’s eyes. He’s a junior architect on the planet of Tusna — with it’s eight day weeks — and happy enough with his life. He likes his older sister, has little to do with his older brother, and gets along with his parents. He likes swimming and is a nice, decent person. Unfortunately he reads a little like Prince Charming, so good and noble that he doesn’t have room to be a person. Even when he’s angry, it’s a noble anger. He has no real dislikes, no actual opinions; he likes pretty much everything and is willing to like pretty much everyone. It’s another reason the book reminds me of older sci-fi; the main character always tended to be an “I-guy” so that the reader could put more of themselves into the story. It’s not a bad choice, but it’s a slightly bland one.
Cole finds Aiden to be almost perfect. They fit together, both intellectually and physically. They share the same tastes in bed, the same sense of humor, and Aiden always gets Cole’s attempts at humor. What Cole doesn’t consider, though, or even wonder, about is how much of this ‘getting along’ is because Aiden can sense his mood and how badly Aiden needs him. Aiden has no choice in his future. He needs an anchor and Cole is nice, has no urge to use him, is justly upset at the fate of empath’s, and is attracted to Aiden as a person. But what does Aiden want? What are his opinions? We never really get to know since everything in Aiden is geared to pleasing another person. It’s an aspect of the story that isn’t really gone into in depth, but there are hints here and there when Aiden reminds Cole that he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting months for Cole to make up his mind. Cole, himself, is content to draw out the dates, to take his time and to get to know Aiden, and might have spent all of the three or four months Aiden has left to him to make up his mind if it weren’t for the kidnapping.
Kidnapping of an empath is distressingly common. A police officer even states that they can’t stop all of the kidnappings save, perhaps, locking unbonded empaths away for their own good. A reason that some people use to try to bring empaths back to a ‘protected’ state. There are even drugs used to heighten an empath’s sensitivity, to force the need to bond so that a kidnapper — or a buyer — can all but guarantee themselves a pet empath. It’s a dark and sad look into Aiden’s world and a much-needed kick in the pants for Cole.
I appreciated that the author didn’t just leave it a happily ever after. Instead, Aiden has nightmares and PTSD, his family has to get him a therapist and a specialist to work with him on his empathic gifts, and Cole has to rearrange much of his professional life to suit Aiden’s needs, and even give up some of his personal life since Aiden needs time to learn how to handle crowds or separation. It’s a bit too pat of an ending, but there is honest thought into the repercussions of the kidnapping and an honest attempt to show that it isn’t just a fairy tale ending. Relationships need work and people have to be willing to compromise, even if your partner is perfect.
I would have liked to see the other side of the relationship, to see what Aiden’s thoughts are behind his agreeable smile. However, the writing is good, the world building is very good, and the idea behind the story is very well handled. The pacing is a bit slow, but that’s more Cole’s fault than the author’s. I hope the second book in the series comes out soon since I am very interested in this world, though, unfortunately I’m more interested in the world than the people.