2500 years ago, Earth lost contact with the colonists of Ostakis. Kaj Deder has been sent by the Human Planets Collective to re-establish contact with this lost colony and to judge if the people of Ostakis are worth bringing back into the Collective, or to determine if they should be left to their own devices, and their own extinction. After so many years, the people of Ostakis are no longer quite as human as Kaj expected, and the theocratic power of the Faith Progressive Church calls Kaj’s right to judge them into question. However, on Kaj’s side is Trademaster Klath and his most interesting son, Arlen.
Arlen is a “Cursed,” an individual viewed as less than human by the Church, and Kaj wants to know why. What is so wrong, so horrible about this charming young man that makes the Most Reverend Sharr wish him dead? Why are the Cursed men whipped to death in the public square? Why can they hold no rights?
When the Trademaster is arrested by the Church, he gives the care of his house, and his son, to Kaj, asking the Ambassador to become Yonsu Klath (a position similar to Lord or Master of a house) and protect his house, his people, and most importantly, his son. As religion and politics conspire to pull Kaj deeper into the mystery of Ostakis, his affection for Arlen only grows, as does his hatred for the Most Reverend Sharr.
In no way, shape, or form did I expect this book to turn out as it did. I expected politics and an exploration of theocratic power, perhaps even a nuanced story about prejudice and preconceptions or even terraforming and ecological issues. This book gave me almost all of those things along with — surprise — male pregnancy! I am not a great fan of mpreg stories, but the author managed to keep me interested in the story, as well as the ideas behind the story, and I ended up enjoying this book despite my own prejudices.
Kaj lost his wife, Marta, to a diplomatic mission several hundred years ago. No, he’s not ancient, it’s just the way time and physics works owing to time dilation and ship travel. The grief is faded, but still present, and he took the position of Ambassador to Ostakis knowing he would never be able to return to the life he left behind. It allows him to fully commit to his new life, and to put all of his attention on the problems in front of him. However, only a few days pass before his greatest ally, the Trademaster Alkus Klath, is imprisoned and needs Kaj to free him.
Kaj is clever and ruthless and has grown to hate the church and the man who heads it, enough so that he’s willing to throw away all of his training and act with personal biases with no thought as to how Ostakis might take it, or to realize he represents more than just himself to these people. Before he can do anything, though, Arlen goes into his heat.
Arlen is Cursed, an intersex man who has the ability to bear children with another man. He has no legal rights, save the ones his father gives him in his house, and isn’t viewed as a real person outside of it. His friend, another Cursed, has it worse with his family outright selling him to a man as far away from them as they can manage whether he wants it or not. Cursed with no partners are forced into brothels where, during their heat cycles, they won’t care who it is that’s fucking them. This is what Arlen wishes to avoid at all costs.
When Kaj comes to Arlen during his heat, Arlen tries to warn him, but all of Ostakis has done their best to keep the Cursed — and how and why they came to be — a secret from the Ambassador. In the end, Kaj gives in to the pheromones and joins Arlen during his heat. Kaj is willing for this to be a one-time thing until Arlen tells him that their union will almost certainly result in a child, at which point Kaj decides to keep Arlen as a lover. It was the loss of a child that caused he and his wife to drift apart before her death, a loss that still hurts Kaj.
And herein is one of my greatest issues with this book. During their heat, a Cursed — an intersex male — gives off a pheromone that drives any male — straight, married, underage, drunk, or sober — to breed with them. There is no option of consent for the Cursed man and no choice for his partner. Arlen didn’t consent to Kaj, and Kaj, under the influence of the pheromones, was helpless, almost like being drugged and fucked against his will. For both of them. The only reason Kaj pauses and doesn’t leave Arlen isn’t because he likes the young man he’s met only a day before, it’s because Arlen mentions (more than once) the possibility of there being a child. It’s not love and it’s not romance; it’s good sex and responsibility that makes Kaj take Arlen as a partner.
While the two men say they’re in love the next day — the pacing in this book is very fast — it doesn’t feel earned. Also, as it’s explained, a cursed male’s son (are they always boys, then?) inherits his non-cursed father’s titles and properties. What about the children between a man and a woman? Can a woman have children, on this planet? If a Cursed man has no rights and no protection from society, how and why does he inherit? A great deal is never explained, making the book feel half-finished, as if the author, too, didn’t know the answers to these questions — or simply hadn’t thought of them.
There are some copy errors, as well, such as “chucked” instead of “chuckled,” and some strange word choices. For example: “I looked at this man from another world, and I apprehended there was much he did not understand.” While it’s not an incorrect use of the word, it’s not a common one. Speaking of words, on Ostakis, words have power, and the way you use words can be as much a weapon as any gun or knife. This is gone into great detail in the first chapter of the book, but this concept quickly falls away as the plot elements take center stage and aren’t really brought back until the last chapter.
A wealth of creativity and thought went into this book, but it shows up in uneven patches. There is so much potential here, and I truly enjoyed the writing. Unfortunately, I just didn’t connect with the characters and had too many questions left unanswered, both about consent and biology. However, this is only the author’s second work, and I have every hope a third book — if there is one — will continue to shape Primm as an author and a storyteller.