In 2025, science was on the verge of discovering what was thought to be a panacea to purge the planet of a deadly virus—a drug named Licithin. A mere century later and that same cure has mutated into a super virus that has all but decimated life on Earth. When a solitary, interstellar traveler named Vardam winds up on Earth, they befriend the last of the humans. Vardam is inspired by the stories their human friends tell them, but knows there is no future for the human race…unless they risk a trip back in time to meet the scientist who created Licithin, Professor Kurt Lomax.
Despite the cold indifference with which Kurt Lomax shrouds himself, he may have the capacity for deep emotion. His marriage failed and his skills as a father are so poor as to be nonexistent. His reputation was shredded in the wake of the public learning about clinical trials he ran on animals. Now, he’s hoping his work for Pharmacure can…if not reverse the negatives, at least ensure he is remembered as a hero of medicine. With the culmination of his life’s work about to be released to the public, the last thing he expects is to find an alien life form on his sofa. Added to that, the alien bears news that not only is Kurt a persona non grata the world over in one hundred years, but it is because he gets blamed for the extinction level event Licithin has on the human population.
With the appearance of Vardam, Kurt is faced with a monumental decision: take his chances and try to fix the Lecithin drug, or sabotage everything he has lived and sacrificed for over the last 20 years. It is by no means an easy choice, but Kurt has a small and brilliant team assembled to help guide his hand…and maybe a bit of something more for the being that pointed out the flaw in his research to begin with.
When I read the blurb for this, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. The characters sounded appealing when whittled down to their most basic attributes: a damaged doctor, a non-binary non-human life form, a goth gay, etc. I’ll admit I was a bit unsure before I started, but from the very first pages, the writing style was beautifully descriptive and immediately set the scene for an earth-bound space fantasy that absolutely captivated me.
First, the story “book ends” with snippets from life in 2125 for a woman named Bella. Because she is related to one of the MCs, this same character adds color and depth to main story that takes place in 2025. Lockwood does a marvelous job weaving Bella into the larger story, despite having a small on-page presence in the book itself.
Based on how the principle characters are introduced, I was half expecting a love triangle between Kurt (the damaged doctor), Tom (the goth gay), and Vardam (the non-binary interstellar traveler). I was delighted to find out that Kurt and Tom each get their own romance threads and these are the main romance stories in the book. That said, they are by no means where the bulk of the action is. Lockwood is rather coy about on-page sex so the one and a half sexy times scenes we do have were a special treat, I thought. That said, I found the relationship between Kurt and Vardam to be much more deeply developed. Both Kurt and Vardam are strong presences in their own rights. Tom, on the other hand, is paired with a character named Rashad; they are a fun pair and offer some “light” angst. Light, in this case, meaning “how can I trust the man I’m falling in love with when he may be in cahoots with the people who would rather see profits than save lives?” Rashad just doesn’t get the on-page time to really build him up onto a more rounded character, so his romance with Tom didn’t feel as “deep” as what I saw developing between Kurt and Vardam.
The action in the story is paced extremely well. Not a chapter went by where I felt bored or like I’d rather be reading about other characters. Part of this is, I think, because Lockwood lets the reader learn a lot about Vardam as he first makes contact with Kurt and especially his team. These scenes not only build up our mental picture of Vardam and everything they are capable of, but reinforces the supporting characters as more than just scenery. Nic, for example, is a doctor overseeing clinical trials of a drug to treat opiod withdrawl and Troy is a nurse/scientist who both helps Nic and has his own agricultural-based project. Breaking up the “learn about the alien” segments are scenes that involve James Dyer, CEO of Pharmacure. I really enjoyed how this character doesn’t just stop at “money grubbing and unethica,l” but has a rivalry with Kurt that’s been running over 15 years.
For me, the piece de resistance, however, is probably Kurt Lomax himself. I loved the descriptions of Vardam’s physical self and the consistency with which their people are described in the book. But it is Kurt with whom I feel the most—which is surprising since he is clearly something of a dick. He had sex with a woman once and married her when it turned out he had gotten her knocked up. What follows is anything but a fairy tale and Kurt clearly acts and reacts with habitual coldness. I loved learning a little bit about why he was so distant, which is tied into how his childhood caregivers raised him with more “tough” and less “love.” Kurt acknowledges his hard knocks and finds himself wanting to open up to Vardam about it—but events are such that rather than collapsing with relief at finding love, he ends up believing his worst fears are actually corroborated. This adds a level of heavy drama that I did not expect from a character that is introduced as all but a cold fish. The transformation he goes through at the end was lovely to read, if a bit under-told on-page for my tastes.
I found very little to criticize about this book. There were a few places where I sort of scratched my head: the “SURPRISE! I’m a secret agent” role one of the side characters took on, for example. It helped that this was a character not central to the action of the plot and the reveal of his status as an undercover agent didn’t significantly alter the on-page action. Another “huh” moment came when there was an action sequence; my confusion stemmed from the fact that this action sequence seemed to place Vardam out in the open and in public for the first time, but rather than seeing the masses shocked and scared, the guards just come and take Vardam back to Kurt’s laboratory. One final critique: Vardam themself is non-binary, so reading the pronouns “they/them” wasn’t a big surprise. However, “they/them” were used in many other narrations with a cis gendered character—it took me a while to realize this wasn’t a plural.
Overall, this was a very satisfying read. All the characters are fun and compelling in their own right, but Kurt, Vardam, and (to a lesser extent) Tom make it something special. If you want to explore portrayals of non-binary (without the fetters of a character having any biological sex to begin with) or are interested in reading about a deeply flawed but strangely compelling character, this is a great place to start.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.