Story Rating: 4.5 stars
Audio Rating: 5 stars
Narrator: Darcy Stark
Length: 12 hours, 42 minutes
Three men, two bodies, one love.
Smugglers Tain and Van have known one another all of their lives.They played together as children, went to school together, and both lost their families to a Federation attack. Together they joined the Coalition army to fight back and gain revenge, and now it’s just the two of them and their ship, friends and sometimes lovers, working odd jobs for the Commander — an alien creature who they served under in the army (they still call him Commander out of habit and respect). The Commander has a new job for the pair of them. They are to go to the planet of Akiak and rescue the king, the prince, and a selection of diplomats and various high ranking people … all for a very nice bit of profit.
Akiak is a world of wonders with crystals of unimaginable power. The smallest red crystal could power a starship for years; others are lovely enough on their own to be works of art, and all of them worth a fortune. The only problem anyone has with Akiak is that their king has no intention of selling the crystals, crystals the Federation and the Coalition both very much want to get their hands on. And now that the Federation has found an ally in the king’s brother, the Commander fears that the Federation may once again launch the universe into war.
Having served as courtesans and contract killers as the need presents itself, Tain and Van seem the perfect pair for the job. There’s only one problem, and it’s something Tain and Van aren’t sharing with the Commander. Tain no longer has a body. His consciousness is linked to the ship, and it keeps him alive and allows him to still be with Van. Rescuing a king and a prince will give them enough money to get a new job for Tain, so they say yes, and set in course a chain of events that will change everything.
Tain has always been the one to do the talking. And now he’s the one who has to stay silent as Van talks with the Commander. He’s clever, quick, playful and the sort of man who will be cruel only ever to be kind. He’s also not practical and pragmatic. Having lost his body, unable to even hug Van outside of virtual space, he wants his friend to be happy and to find love. And if that love happens to be with the beautiful Akiakian the two of them rescued, well, at least Tain can watch, right? Of course, the Akiakian is also able to enter the virtual mind-space of the ship, allowing for all sorts of possibilities …
Van is all emotions, chief of which are rage, injustice, and outrage. He holds a grudge like no one and is used to answering questions with his fists first. Drowning in guilt over Tain’s situation, he flings himself at this mission. Having lost his family at an early age, he’s turned to Tain to be his emotional center, to be the one in charge and taking care of him. He even sees in the Commander a form of father figure, someone to lean on and to trust and who can take all the responsibility. And yet, when he’s with Jorvik, Van can’t be the emotional one. He has to be the one thinking, the one taking care of the fish out of water Akiakian (who is terrified of the ocean), the one offering comfort. It’s a new role for him, but slowly — with Tain’s less than subtle help — he’s managing to find some emotional maturity.
Jorvik has been trained to be a leader to his people. To always be what is needed. To be strong, fair, and just. But when he is betrayed, his father killed, his people dishonored, murdered, tortured all for offworlder coin, it makes him feel a gamut of emotions he’s been trained to shut away. Pain, sorrow, rage, anger, confusion, and shame. It’s the anger he clings to to ground himself and to protect himself from all the rest of it. Jorvik sees anger as positive. It allows him to push pass the docility bred into his people and gives him the energy to plan for revenge. Sorrow would only leave him weeping on the floor, unable to avenge his father or protect what’s left of the people he loves. But anger isn’t enough. Jorvik needs allies, he needs ships, but the farther away he is from Akiak, the more he’s also frightened and lost and lonely. He sees Tain’s cautious friendship and embraces it wholly. He sees Van’s emotions, his anger and stiffness, and shies away from it, not wanting to either force himself on the other man or subject himself to Van’s temper.
What I truly love in this story is how long it takes anything to happen! Yes, there’s a lot of sex, and a lot of action, but these three men don’t come together for much of the book. Tain and Van have been friends with benefits for so long, even as they both loved one another, they never wanted to presume. Perhaps they weren’t even aware of the depth of their affection until they lost Tain’s body. When Jorvik is added into the mix, it’s a slow and awkward dance. Tain and Jorvik, Van and Jorvik, Tan and Van and — at last — the three of them together. There are moments of jealousy and uncertainty as characters have to adjust to a new relationship, and I loved that. Even with just two people there is friction and squabbles and second thoughts; Winters allows all three characters to feel more than just lust. They feel the hurt, the doubt, the affection, and the trust and it’s honestly wonderful.
Then there’s the world building. Not just the world of Akiak, which is well done — with it’s low light, glowing crystals, and genetically altered population — but the space ports, the various races, and politics. Spacers and space police, old friends and new enemies, and then there’s the world of the space ship and the virtual world Tain is now stuck in. All in all, there’s so much work put into making everything feel real and dimensional and I’m honestly taken aback by just how much I enjoyed so much of this book.
So, you knew this was coming, the nitpicks. There is a lot of repetition in this book. The audio runs over 12 hours and I think at least two of those are filled with variations of stories as Tain tells a story to Jorvik, who then has to hear it from Van. Van tells Jorvik a story that he then hears from Tain. Jorvik tells Tain something, but then has to go find Van to tell him the same story. To her credit, the author makes certain that each iteration is unique, but it gets wearing.
I was given the audio book, narrated by Darcy Stark, who did an absolutely amazing job. Putting aside the matter of fantasy accents — both the Akiakians and the Federation soldiers were given accents to help differentiate them from various other characters — Stark had two interesting challenges: The first, Tain. Tain, in the virtual space, talks like, well, Tain. But when Van and Jorvik are in the ship, Tain speaks to them through, well, a speaker. The narrated managed to get across that flat, inflectionless voice and, at the same time, do it a second time. The Commander is an alien who speaks using a voice box that can mimic some human speech, but not the emotions. To get that slightly buzzy, robotic voice across without having it sound at all like Tain’s computer generated voice must have taken some work.
For all that this book is over 12 hours, it never felt like it dragged on. Even in some of the slower sections, the narrator kept the dialogue bright and filled with personality. Towards the end of the book, when things were getting a bit … creative with the world building and the house of cards explodes into a combination of chaos, crazy, and confusion, Stark still managed to keep things moving briskly along. I highly recommend listening to the audio version of this story if you have the choice. Stark just did an absolutely amazing job.