The brief march from The Facility to the cobalt mines is all Selati has really known of the red giant that warms Ilmare.Yet he longs to feel its warmth against his skin and scales—if only he and the others could find a way to escape their human overseers. Salvation comes with another construct, another Caniead like himself, who leads a small rescue team right to their mine. Safe from the punishingly brutal work in the mines, Selati is eager to find out what the world has to offer…and maybe discover a bit of happiness with the Commander who rescued him.
The cruel humans on Ilmare may not recognize their worth, but Commander Aleleadi is determined to set his fellow human-snake hybrid brothers free. When word comes that the humans have started planning a counterattack, one meant to re-enslave all the freed Caniead, Aleleadi knows they have to fight back. It’s not just for freedom that he fights, however. The Commander recognizes Selati as his one true love, his All. Just as Aleleadi will do anything to give them a chance at having a happy future full of light and freedom, Selati will follow Aleleadi’s lead and fight for the same…but will their force of some several hundred Caniead be enough to beat back tens of thousands of humans?
One of the first issues I encountered in this story is dealing with Caniead biology. As luck would have it, I happened to read the mention about human-snake people in the front matter of this book. This was sort of helpful as I read the story’s initial references to things like snakes and coils and all that, but when the opening scenes detail a deep gash to Selati’s “hip,” I wasn’t entirely confident in the physical makeup of a Caniead. Did they have legs such that they would have hips? Where would a straight-up snakes “hips” fall? As the story progressed, I came to understand the species is basically human from the waist (or thereabouts) on up, and snake from the waist (or thereabouts) downward. Then there was this one scene that both confused me again about Caniead physiology AND Caniead culture:
“Fingers made careful contact with his belly and started to circle a hair above where his scales faded into skin.”
For the physiology, this seems to indicate there is…pubic hair? Or do the scales continue all over the body, even the human top half? The bigger question raised, however, is what exactly Caniead are and how long they’ve been around. It was clear to me that Selati was grown in a lab and once he was “fully cooked,” he was marched to the mines and made to exist down there and extract cobalt. When he meets Aleledai, I can understand that Selati doesn’t know that he’s falling in love with his soulmate. Less understandable is that Selati and Aleledai start a physical relationship, acknowledge their love for each other, get married, and go on their three-day “honeymoon” (they spend three days having sex in a private tent). It is after ALL THIS that Aleledai explains that Seltai may have impregnated Aleledai. Selati did not know sex causes pregnancy or that Aleledai could bear young. In the context of the story, this is explained away by the fact that Selati was created in a lab and immediately sent to the mines; in retrospect, that really bothered me because Selati had zero knowledge of what he was getting into. It felt like Selati was getting the “birds and the bees talk” after he was informed he was probably fathering children with Aleledai.
The upside is that, if you’re into stories where the two main characters are just punchdrunk in love and can’t keep their hands off one another, the bulk of this story really centers on the physical and emotional attraction these bonded pairs feel for one another. In fact, the romance aspect forms the bulk of the on-page story until rather late in the book. The lead up to the actual battle seemed acceptable—mostly focusing on how busy Aleledai was with organizing their efforts and Selati learning how to fight, with plenty of lamenting how hard it was for the newly wedded pair to be away from each other.
Eventually, Aleledai announces they’re going to battle and that everyone has three days to make the final preparations. While I was just stunned to read that one of the Caniaed knew what kinds of weapons the humans would be using but didn’t tell everyone, the battle in general was rather exciting. The descriptions of Selati fighting with a spear, wounding or killing humans, and protecting fellow Caniaed were thoughtfully crafted. Selati is sympathetic as he fights and, despite his training, is not busting out superhero moves and visiting absolute wrath upon his foes…he’s just doing his best. And his best isn’t quite good enough to escape the battle entirely unscathed. Selati’s injuries add another element of suspense to the post-battle and, when Creech flips between Selati’s and Aleledai’s perspectives, really heightens the drama.
There were, however, a lot of loopholes in the storytelling that I could not wrap my brain around. I never understood why Aleledai knew all about Caniead physiology and Selati knew nothing. Aleledai speaks of a tradition when a Commander calls for battle—but it was my understanding this was the first uprising ever. Where would such a tradition start for a species created by humans? It was pretty clear that if the Caniead failed to overpower the humans, they would all be exterminated; why, then, didn’t the Caniaed who knew about human weapons brief his fellow Caniaed about how these humans would be armed (Selati discovered what kind of weapons the humans wielded *literally* while on the battlefiled)? Why was Selati even mining cobal? Why was that so precious to the humans to want to create a species to mine it? Why were snakes considered the best species for this task?
I really enjoyed the idea of these human-snake hybrids banding together and establishing their freedom—of fighting for it in the face of wholly unsympathetic humans. I liked the balance between character drama like Selati’s enslavement and watching Selati fall in love for the counterpoint it gives to the existential threat the humans pose. But with such clumsy execution, most of the big turning points in the story felt diminished because of the plot holes revealed. If you’re looking for a hard-hitting story that addresses social issues, I think this story misses the mark by a wide margin. If, however, the idea of hybrid species and One True Pairing themes are more your bag, there’s a lot to enjoy in the descriptions of the Caniead and the relationship between Selati and Aleledai.