I heard via word of mouth that No Words Alone is a very good science fiction romance, so of course I had to check it out. I had some very ambivalent feelings about this book and yet I was completely swept away by the story and the atmosphere.
Xera is a translator. She is human, and serves on a human spacecraft that crashes after engaging in a skirmish with an alien craft. Both ships are stranded on a hostile planet and the humans and the aliens (Scorpios) have to make an alliance to survive. Xera is the only woman in both crews and when her captain threatens to rape her, the Scorpio leader, Ryven, takes her under his protection. Seeing as how the two races are at war, “under his protection” essentially means she is taken prisoner, brought to Ryven's home planet, and told that she will be marrying him. Xera is drawn to the Scorpio culture and to Ryven, but also resents her lack of choices, misses her family, and struggles to communicate with the strange man who is about to become her husband.
The author, Autumn Dawn, does a lot of things very, very well. The writing is smooth and evocative. Here's a particularly lovely quote:
“Xera understood fear and worry. It started with a small thought and grew, circled around and came back stronger, like the first wisp of smoke in a still, quiet house. It had to be stamped out while it was still a whisper, before it gained strength and flashed over”.
Dawn is especially good at description, and boy howdy does she describe some pretty things. When Xera arrives on Scorpio she is dirty, injured, traumatized, and hungry. Let me tell you, if you are ever in need of emotional and physical first aid, Scorpio is the place to get it. In addition to the emergency pampering, there are pages of description of houses and gardens and markets and meals and clothes. I believe the word I'm looking for is “sumptuous”. I'm not sure I want to read that kind of thing every day, but if you are looking for pure glorious escapism this is your book.
The book isn't a laugh riot, but there are many touches of humor that I enjoyed, my favorite being when, during a space battle, Xera tells a companion, “Hey! Our toilet is offline! Man, but that would be a problem if we planned to live very long”.
I also liked reading about Xera as a professional. She is not just a translator but also a cultural ambassador (both officially and unofficially). She is non-judgmental of Ryven's culture and asks direct but polite questions whenever a Big Misunderstanding looms. The only problem is that when a third culture shows up, (The Khun'tat), all of that cultural relativism goes out the window and the Khun'tat are pure villains with “monstrous appetites”. It's like The Lion King, when the Circle of Life includes everyone except hyenas. I'm not saying that I want to hang out with the Khun'tat, but after going to so much trouble to create at least moderately multilayered alien characters among the Scorpio, it's jarring to see these vampire bugs show up who sneer a lot.
Here's what's really weird about the book – everything involving sexual politics. Xera has served on the same ship for years, yet she accepts that after a very short time, like, a day, of being stranded on another planet, her entire crew will be out to rape her – and she's almost right. Something must have happened on Earth earlier in the series that I missed, because Xera tells Ryven that she will not have sex before marriage because on Earth that would make her “a whore”. Ryven courts Xera with great delicacy but he never backs off on his order that she will marry him. If you don't believe in Babies Ever After, for heaven's sake do not read this book – it has a particularly egregious use of BEA including a heroine who gets pregnant because she can't remember the date of her last birth control shot, and who is informed by her husband of the pregnancy.
Never has a heroine seemed so strong and admirable to me while wrapped in a package of complete doormattery. I admire Xera's intelligence (except regarding birth control), her relationships with other women, her determination to build a full life for herself including friendships and a meaningful career, and her diplomatic skills. How this is all taking place in what appears to be an old school conservative's dream is beyond me. I could understand if Xera herself had some conservative ideas about sex, but the whore thing and the constant rape or harassment threat is presented as a cultural norm, plus Xera's convenient stupidity is completely out of character.
So…how to I grade this one? Impartially, the weird conservative sexual politics are somewhat lazily written but overall the book's writing is strong. My personal preferences are for more feminist stuff and yet I never did hurl my Nook across the room. I was totally swept up in the story. Even when banging my head against the wall (metaphorically) I kept reading.
So I'm going with a B- with a strong caveat that many people might say, “The hell with the food and the interior decorating – this is infuriating!” This grade is a good example of a time when technique might trump content – and I'm still waffling over it. I am planning to read more from Dawn, if nothing else so I can figure out if she ever explains why suddenly a woman from Earth who has pre-marital sex is a whore. Wish me luck. Incidentally, there's no ISBN number listed on this review because my copy, an eBook, doesn't have one, but was availble free from Smashwords. No Words Alone is also available in paperback form on Amazon and as a eBook from Amazon (but, alas, not for free).