At the beginning of the year I decided to actively seek out and read SF&F written by women or with women occupying the titular roles. As you may imagine, when I first learned about Catherine Asaro , a female author who writes hard SF while reading the Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction, I was excited and impressed and went in immediate search of books written by her. Aside from being an author and dancer, Asaro has degrees in chemistry and physics from Harvard. I felt immediately assured that her books would give me that blend of believable SF and intriguing narrative I love. However, not until I started to read Primary Inversion did I realize that she can also be billed as a romance author.
This is where things sort of went bad for me.
I’m not sure if this is the point at which I am supposed to hand over my honorary girl’s club membership card, but I have a difficult time with strong elements of romance in my books. This is a personal preference. More accurately, I can tolerate romance if it is tasteful, subtle, and does not make up the bulk of the story. Not quite so with PI, but this is not my only issue with this book.
It’s not that I hate romance… it’s just that I do. Ha. Specifically, I don’t appreciate the over sentimentalized, sappy, UNREALISTIC, heart-rung quality romance novels frequently present us with. Even more specifically, I prefer stories wherein the romance is a happenstance occurrence and not the crux of the tale.
Primary Inversion (PI) is the first novel in the Saga of the Skolian Empire series. PI is a hard SF, space opera, political intrigue and, yes, romance novel. As I typically do with my reviews, I will try to discuss the merits of the book as I see and understand them without spoiling it for those who eventually chose to go on and read it.
PI is written in first person POV in the voice of the main character, Sauscony Valdoria (Soz). Soz is an intelligent, powerful super soldier-type who leads her own fighter squadron. She is attractive and at forty-eight years old looks about half that. Part of her super soldier prowess is due to her many cybernetic implants, but also in part to her genetic make-up. She is Rhon (I still honestly don’t get it) and this makes her, in addition to everything else, a powerful empath. She is funny and spunky, bright and quick witted. Soz is also the sister of Kurj, Imperator of the Skolian Imperialate, and she is next in line to take his place. What this means is that she is old money wealthy and practically royalty.
Her biggest internal conflict is a ten year old psychological wound she carries after having been once kidnapped and raped by an Aristo, a race that derives pleasure from the pain of empaths.
At first I thought it was the first person POV that I didn’t like, but then I realized that in this case, first person wasn’t the issue so much as the character of Soz herself. She is quite the Mary Sue:
- Very Beautiful
- Strangely colored hair
- All men want her
- Even men who don’t like her want her
- An especially skilled pilot/leader/soldier
- Heiress apparent to the Skolian Imperialate
- Practically royalty
- Tragic past (rape) she is still traumatized by making her vulnerable at just the right situations
- Highly potent empath (Empathy is her supernatural power further strengthen by cybernetic implants? Although there are others with this power, hers is particularly strong and well-honed.)
- Pretentious name — Sauscony Valdoria? Really?
- Nearly fifty but looks twenty-something
- Recognized her true love via ecstasy inducing mind meld
During the course of this book, which spans over a few months, Soz enters into three relationships. The first and most appropriate is with a man who eventually becomes a paraplegic. He breaks up with her so as not to destroy her life and prospects. Of course she was prepared to forego her comfort and her position for him, but… Her second relationship is with a twenty something year old who seems terribly naïve. Their relationship was hardly explored outside of their cuddling and romps. He was her golden haired boytoy. The last relationship was with a twenty year old named Jaibriol Qox, who she met in the beginning of the book. JQ wasn’t just naïve but he was wholly inexperienced and also, being Rhon, had this immediate mental connection with her that meant that they were soul mates. The problem with this was that JQ is the heir apparent of the opposing side a galactic war.
Yes, what we have here is a Romeo and Juliet-ish tale.
I don’t like Romeo and Juliet.
I don’t like my characters perfect and awesome and unflawed.
I don’t like spending an entire book stuck in the head of a character whose stuck on themselves. She spends a lot of time stuck in Woe-is-me-land and I can’t stand that place. Not only that, rape or not, I have a difficult time feeling as sorry for her as she does for herself. As a matter of fact, there was a scene in which, while drunk, she “mistakenly” held a loaded weapon to her head. I kinda wished she would have pulled the trigger. Oh, the misery.
I’d also like to note here that JQ is the much younger male mirror image of Soz. In other words, Gary Stu. See all those Mary Sue traits listed above? Yep. That’s him with the odd adjustment here and there.
So, you’re likely wondering why I finished this book. Well, in Asaro’s defense, and mine, PI presents so many interesting and fresh concepts and ideas that I can’t declare it a complete loss. The problem is that the ideas that I personally found interesting, were either not well developed of weighted in simple yet excessive narrative.
Again, first person brought me too close to this character who I did not care for. I believe that had this been written in third person, despite my dislike for Soz, I could have stomached her.
As far as the SF elements go, there are a ton of detailed technical descriptions that instead of adding to the overall depth of the story actually slowed the pacing. I skipped huge chunks to get back into the fray because at some point I’d just glaze over. Part of the issue, I believe, is the fact that PI has too many things going on. You know, less is more, and all that jazz. We have empathic beings, racial issues (although everyone in this book seemed human and white… don’t even get me started on that), cultural issues, strong military elements, space travel, political intrigue, cybernetic implantation, AI…
About halfway in, I started thinking about McMasters-Bujold with her subtle use of technical verbiage and easy believable romantic elements. I missed that while reading PI. I know it isn’t entirely fair to compare the two authors, but the similarities and the differences are striking, I think, and Asaro could learn something from McMasters-Bujold about subtlety and believable relationship progression.
For me, the crux of the issue is that this story with all of its political intrigue and SF elements, which I’d normally enjoy, appears to have been woven to support these unlikely romances as opposed to the romances occurring as the natural result of what happens when two attractive unattached and compatible people are thrown together. Deus Ex Machina is shamelessly and ruthlessly employed here and in the course of one tale is so over used as to become absolutely unacceptable.
The unfortunate past rape of Soz is a looming element in this tale, as it colors Soz’s future experiences. I know that rape happens in real life, that it can alter how a woman sees herself, how she feels about the world around her and that it colors future relationships. Rape is tragic and horrific and unacceptable no matter what. That said, I don’t object to the inclusion of such a tragic element in a story if employed with the sensitivity it deserves. However, in this case I do resent its use as it feels like a pillar upon which to prop the protagonist whose character is annoying, weakly constructed, and paper thin.
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