Story Rating: 4.5 stars
Audio Rating: 4 stars
Narrator: T.J. Clark
Length: 9 hours and 7 minutes
Alkirak is little more than a barely terraformed mining outpost. Residents can count poison gas, intense storms, and lethally strong sun radiation among its detractions. Yet Abraham, or Bram, managed to survive several decades as a miner and now works as a farmer doing his bit to assist the building of an atmosphere. He loves his gardens, his livestock, and the home he has carved into the very crevasses of Alkirak. The only thing is that it can get mighty lonely. While it’s no hardship to slake one’s lust with another miner or even have a friend with benefits, Bram wants something more. He wants something real; he wants love and a family. And he’s finally prepared to admit his best bet is basically a mail-order companion…and hope it grows into something more.
Zhemosen is several weeks’ worth of space travel away from Alkirak and Gael grew up on its mean streets. Like many, Gael’s lack of financial and social status relegate him to second class citizenship. What’s worse, to make ends meet he takes on debt from one of the powerful families of Zhemosen and ultimately winds up working as a drug runner and, one fateful day, a hired gun to work off his debt. Even though Gael knows he’s not a killer, when his mark ends up dead, Gael needs to find a way off Zhemosen and far, far away. Gael’s friend suggests becoming a mail-order companion and, despite Gael’s reservations about what is required of a “companion,” he realizes this is his best bet for escaping his past. What he doesn’t realize is that the ward of the man he failed to kill, a young girl named Aavi, sneaks away with Gael and with much the same hopes: escaping a miserable life on Zhemosen.
In To See the Sun, Jensen creates a futuristic world deeply flawed by the worst of humanity. Living conditions on both Gael and Bram’s home planets are described in gritty detail and, personally, I liked that we get to see both Zhemosen and Alkirak “in person.” Jensen structures the details about conditions on Alkirak especially well, describing the landscape and phenomenon with such consistency that I found it easy to make a mental picture of this world. The politics of these two dissimilar worlds are touched upon, but mostly only insofar as they affect the MCs. That said, intergalactic politics does play a bit of a role in setting up the climactic scenes so I appreciated how well and how timely Jensen works details of these two worlds’ politics into the fabric of the story.
When it comes to the romance, this isn’t a typical “mail-order bride.” For one thing, Gael spends a lot of time cogitating over whether or not he is willing and able to accept such a contract out of fear he and his potential partner wouldn’t get along. In retrospect, I find this deeply interesting because I am wondering if this means Gael isn’t “just” a gay man. Plus, it is an inescapable fact that Gael’s only looking at this type of arrangement because he needs a foolproof way to get out from under the thumb of his employer. I really loved that Jensen shows both Gael and Bram’s side of going through the mail-order companion process. Bram, for example, clearly wants a romance and eventually a family; however, he’s also open to just having some companionship for a year if it turns out he and his future companion aren’t compatible. I thought each character’s motivation for entering the agreement creates some sweet, angsty misunderstandings. For example, Bram doesn’t convey well his willingness to let any potential romance develop slowly, so Gael feels guilty when he realizes he can’t immediately jump into bed with Bram.
Aavi, the ward of the man Gael was supposed to kill on Zhemosen, is an excellent foil for the two men. Gael is initially horrified that she’s managed to cleave her fortunes to his as he attempts to escape his former employer by skipping town (or skipping the galaxy might be more accurate). He’s additionally worried that showing up on Alkirark with a plus-one who was absolutely not part of the contract negotiations may endanger his ability to keep said contract. Bram is equally flummoxed when he gets a two-for-one deal. It’s like all his dreams (partner, child) just fall into his lap…but without the benefit of having built up a solid relationship first. Aavi is a precocious youngster and often serves as the bridge between the two men, either by her joy at some aspect of her new life or by her sadness when she mistakenly believes she’ll be left alone if and when Bram and Gael get married.
There was only one element about the story that rankled a bit, and that’s Bram’s reaction to hearing about Gael and his actions for his former employer. The truth comes out as part of the big climactic scenes at the end. This is a classic set up where one character’s past causes a rift between that character and the other romantic lead. I was just disappointed that Bram seemed to have less faith in Gael than he has in the bearer of the ugly truth about Gael and Aavi’s escape to Alkirark) Ultimately, Bram redeems himself and there was some deliciously angsty, edge-of-your-seat drama.
To See the Sun is narrated by T.J. Clark and clocks in at 9 hours and 7 minutes. Overall, it was a fine performance. The narration tone and speed was pleasing. I listened during my walking commute and, to finish a chapter for arriving, I didn’t have any issues listening at accelerated speed. I appreciated Clark’s efforts to distinguish the different characters’ dialogues with different voices. Personally, I found Bram’s former lover’s voice to be the most enjoyable vocal performance. Bram’s and Gael’s dialogue didn’t work as well spoken aloud for me, but I think that’s more a function of how often Bram uses monosyllabic words and Gael’s repetitious use of curses (Jensen invents special curses to reflect the culture of this universe, but in an audio medium, it took me a while to figure out “oh, sun” was in fact a swear about a literal ball of fire and not a male child). Clark also did a fine job with emoting during intense scenes, such as Bram and Gael’s first night together and after Gael suffers poisonous inhalations.