Many readers of Smart Bitches have mentioned Catherine Asaro as science fiction romance author to check out. She certainly seems like a nifty person – more accurately, she sounds like a very improbable romance heroine.
Among other things, she's a former professional dancer, has a Masters in Physics and a PhD in Chemical Physics from Harvard, she's won two Nebula Awards for her fiction, and she just composed a bunch of music for a CD that accompanies her latest book. In her spare time, she knits intricately patterned fireproof scarves for firefighters from the wool she shears from her own herd of unicorns.
I made that last part up. If I sound bitter, don't worry, it's just the envy of her many accomplishments seeping from my pores as I type.
Anyway, I chose to start my education in the works of Catherine Asaro with Skyfall. It's from her famous Skolian Saga, but it is a prequel. The book opens with Roca, a leader in the Skolian Empire, desperate to get to a hearing so that she can vote against a war that her son, Kurj, is eager to start. After hitching a ride with a cranky starship captain (a great character who promptly flew away and vanished from the book, leaving me bereft) she finds herself stranded on the planet Skyfall. She is literally swept off her feet by local leader Eldrinson. I thought this part would be annoying but actually it's sort of cute – he swoops her up onto his horse and charges away with her in true kid-nappy barbarian fashion, but realizes within only a few minutes that Roca is genuinely irked by being ran away with. He offers to return her to her port, and offers a very polite invitation to his castle as an alternative. Who can turn down a polite invitation to a castle? Then there's a weather problem, and a siege, and the next thing you know, time has passed and things have happened.
Skyfall is one of those books that I feel should have made me giddy. It didn't – but I did feel a warm sense of contentment while reading it. A lot happens in Skyfall, but there is also a lot of space in which people are waiting for things to happen. In these spaces, they talk, they have sex (not explicit), they eat (bubble food!), and they sing and dance and sleep and scheme. I liked having that time with the characters and ultimately that's the part of the book that I cared about. The plot was not all that enthralling but I liked dreaming my way into the world. I also thought the mix of fantasy (the castle) and science fiction (the Kyle Web, sort of a psychically powered Internet) was interesting. I liked the characters and the depth and complexity of relationships between family members. It was heartrending to see how much Roca's family loves one another and how poorly they get along, and at the same time I respected the fact that things weren't made all sunshiny with a few words of reconciliation. I also liked the culture clashes.
What I didn't like was that the intricacies of the plot were not interesting to me- and I suspect that that has to do with jumping into the middle of a long series. Even though the story of the characters in Skyfall worked fine as a stand-alone, all of the things that make their stories matter on a larger scale involve the full series of the Skolian Empire. I could care less about the Skolian Empire based solely on this book. I do care about Roca and Eldrinson and Roca's family. Because of this, every time the story veered away from the relationships and towards space opera, I lost interest. I'm not sure if that's because this book lacked sufficient context to appreciate the space opera on it's own, or if that simply reflects my personal preferences – it's generally true that I care about the happiness of specific characters more than any other aspect to a story, no matter how well written the other aspects may be.
If you were advising a reader to try Catherine Asaro, which book would you suggest they read first? Also, if you read Skyfall, did you think for at least five minutes that Roca would, and ought to, end up with Brad? Does the cranky starship captain show up in another book? Inquiring minds (mine) want to know. I suspect that this book earns an enthusiastic A from many readers- it is certainly solidly written and marvelously imaginative. I'm giving it an A- because I can't fault its craft but it did not sweep me off my feet like I expect an A grade book to do.