Book Review

Unmasked by CJ Barry


Title: Unmasked
Author: C. J. Barry
Publication Info: Love Spell 2005
ISBN: 0505525747
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

I have to be honest: I have a lot of trouble getting into romance set in the future when said future romances are set in space. Other galaxies, other planets, sectors, warping – somehow my brain resists accepting the alternate reality, like it’s too big a jump and too far reaching a fantasy. I’m ashamed to admit I’m either really dim in terms of space imagination, or maybe I’m a lameass space snob. But sadly, space romances are hard for me to get into. It’s possible it’s because the few I’ve read have done world building via info-dumping, which is bothersome because it slows down the pace to a crawl even if the spaceship is traveling at the speed of light. But info-dumping is not really enough of a reason for my hesitancy. I’m not sure why my “select reading material” button goes dark at “Space, the year 3056….”

And yet, I scold myself, I’m willing to accept all manner of idiocy in a historical. And I’ve read plenty of romances set in the future – as well as a few set in a fantastical version of the 1980’s – and haven’t had a problem with the setting. But space – sorry to say – is kinda my own final frontier.

Well, no, that’s not true. Inspirationals are my final frontier. Definitely.

So starting a book while repeatedly telling myself that I’m being a douchebag is not the best way to an open mind towards the reading material at hand. Fortunately for me, Barry’s book slapped my sorry self into next week with the Power of Good Writing.

The pace is fast, and the methods used to reveal the technical details of a world far, far into the future work without visible bumpy seams. There’s no info dumping. There’s clever uses of teacher/student dialogue to educate the reader, and there’s explication that makes sense in context. It seems like such an obvious rule: Don’t Dump Backstory on the Poor Reader. Backstory is heavy and I don’t have enough grocery bags in the house to carry it all. And yet so many stories set in worlds that require building lift up the dumptruck and let it all slide down in the first 15 pages. Barry? Oh no. Her dumptruck is lean, mean, and moves at the speed of light, dropping morsels of information that not only set up the universe in which the story is set, but entice the reader with clues to the characters’ strengths and skills. I can’t underscore how much I have learned to appreciate good world building since reading for this site has expanded my reading into fantasy, sci-fi, and future-set romances.

The story opens on Torrie Masters, only daughter among the heirs to Masters Shipping, on her maiden voyage as Captain of one of the fleet vessels. Her crew has abandoned ship on her orders, and she’s chosen to stay behind to try everything she can think of to stop the engine core from melting down. Meltdown = ship explodes into billions of itty bitty pieces, Torrie included. 

The ship’s control console goes dark, the computer’s mellifluous female voice is silent (after Torrie repeatedly threatens to turn the voice into a man’s due to the computer’s inability to multitask effectively), and Torrie is left in silence gazing at millions of stars, waiting for the ship to blow up – only it doesn’t.

A huge pirate ship blots out the stars in front of Torrie’s window, and assumes command of her ship remotely, allowing the pirates to board and take over control of her ship. Qaade, the pirate captain, comes aboard to take over the ship and search the cargo hold. Torrie, however, is not going down without a fight.

This is about the point where Sarah wanted to repeatedly smack herself for not giving space romances (say that with the echo pedal on- spaaaaaace roooooommmmaaaaaaaaaance!) more of a chance. Barry combines several sharp elements, such as a strong, smart, and clever heroine, a tortured, noble hero, and sets them in a blisteringly fast paced story that touches on ethics, slavery, corporate responsibility, and lawlessness serving up more effective justice than the law itself. Unmasked is written with facile interweaving of several different story threads such that each person’s narrative advances at the same time – there’s no division of chapter where this one is about the hero and heroine, and the next is about the heroine’s best friend and her secondary romance. Barry expertly maintains a whuppass pace while maintaining the story of each character, and never letting the reader lose interest or lose track of what’s happening to who, and how come.

As usual, a strong and ass-kicking heroine meeting a strong and ass-kicking hero makes for excellent romance, but in this case, the ass-kicking comes from different sides of the law, and therein lies a great deal of conflict. Torris is bound by her own moral code and sense of honor based on law, family loyalty, and professional behavior in light of her family’s company. Qaade is bound by his own sense of honor based on commitment to save the lives of slaves, ambition to build his cause without interference from the law, and solve his own personal mystery. Qaade considers the law and the slave traders equally his enemy.

Finding their way to a happily ever after therefore involves the possibility of compromising personal ethics. Torrie has to accept Qaade’s piracy and what that means to her company, and also the potential truth that her family’s corporation and the society in which she lives have been advancing slavery by unknowingly trafficking in memory-washing drugs. Further, she herself may be complicit by being quiet when other sectors legally allow people’s memories to be washed away so that the remaining person is an empty shell to be commanded and directed at will.

Qaade has to accept that it’s time for him to accept help and trust other people – even people who live within the law – to make a significant difference in reducing the trade of human slaves in his galaxy, and that he cannot continue his mission to eradicate slavery on his own.

Even with the complicated personal issues working between the protagonists, my enjoyment was derived from Barry’s plot, in that it dealt with a question I think about frequently: what is the most effective way to create a change when said change must be made? As I said in an earlier entry, sometimes change requires operating quietly from within the system you want to change, slowly working to shift the direction of progress so that people working along side you adopt your methods and work as a team to create a difference. Sometimes, you have to storm the castle from the outside and scare the crap out of people, forcing them to adopt a new way of action.

In this novel, the issue is slavery and human trafficking. Qaade is used to storming the castle: stealing ships, evading the law, and doing what he pleases as an outlaw to the police and an enemy to slave traders, knowing that his actions serve a greater good that only he and the slaves he frees can wholly understand. Torrie works within the law alongside friends in intergalactic law enforcement, and her family stands to lose a great deal if she chooses illegal methods in her efforts to help Qaade. Finding a balance between the two characters, their respective missions, and their moral codes makes for taut reading. Add to that a quick moving plot that involves ethical questions that don’t have simple answers, and ahoy, thar be compelling reading.

The only problem I had with the characters involved Qaade’s refusal to be flexible, even if bending would allow him the chance to be with Torrie. It fits entirely with the noble solitude of his character, but there were times that he treated Torrie shabbily to the point where he needed to grovel more than he did. However, even if I wanted to smack him upside his stubborn head, Torrie understood his character enough to forgive and move on, allowing them both to grow in ways that make for satisfying romance.

A lot of discussion lately has revolved around rules of romance, and what can or cannot, should or should not be done – and if there are rules, how to break them. This book, which won the 2006 BWAHA Award for Best Paranormal: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novel, follows some of the more essential rules of writing good romance. The characters should allow each other to evolve in such a way that, without the other, each one would be less than when the book started. There’s a satisfaction in seeing attraction and love heal, grow, and develop people into even better versions of themselves, and that satisfaction is certainly found in this book.

Comments are Closed

  1. Lani says:

    Oh! Yay! I’m so glad you all gave CJ (also known as Samantha Graves) some SB love!

    I used to feel the same way about sci-fi/futuristics, and I think what it comes down to is that, if the writing is good enough, genre doesn’t matter. There are some writers you’ll put up with a lot from because you love the genre, and it’s those conventions that keep you, rather than the writing. CJ is the opposite – the writing was so great that the genre was a non-issue. It wouldn’t matter what genre she wrote in, I’d read it. She’s amazing.

  2. mojo says:

    I liked Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” series (which is set in pioneer America) when I read that. I’m not much of a romance fan, but now that I’ve found this site, I may re-think that. Usually I grab sci-fi or mysteries which may have romance as an extra feature, but don’t revolve around it.

  3. LadyRhian says:

    I love Sci-Fi/Fantasy.. It’s my favorite choice of reading material. Yeah, info dumps suck no matter the genre, but once you absorb it, it’s no different to me than reading a historical set in some far distant period. Let’s face it, if you are reading a historical set in the wars of the Roses, and one of the characters is on one side, and one on the other, there is still going to be a fair bit of info dump for those who may not be familliar with the period in question.

    IMO, the best writers turn the info dump into stuff that moves the story along. For instance, I just read David Weber’s “Off Armageddon Reef” Humanity is all but wiped out by an alien race who was attracted and apparently enraged, by humans having technology. So, before a big cataclysmic battle with the aliens, some human ships quietly disappear to found a new colony without technology that will attract the aliens.

    Unfortunately, the psychologists in charge of the project exceed their orders and brainwash all the humans in stasis into believing a religion and a God who says they can’t innovate. The humans in charge of the project are cast as “archangels” and “angels” who are doing God’s will.

    It’s an excellent book, and there are a few romantic elements so far. Look it up. It’s a military and war SF book, but really excellent.

  4. Estelle says:

    Ah, now you make me very eager to read this book! I have a couple of this author’s books in my TBR pile and I think I’ll move them up to the top.

    Like you I used not to be fond of space romance…until recently. I became an addict because of Linnea Sinclair. It’s all her fault

    If you intend to give space romance another go now, I can only recommend that you try Sinclair, starting with her lastest, Games of Command, which I think is the best book she has written so far. The other are also excellent, especially Gabriel’s Ghost.

    As I was reading the review I caught myself nodding in approval several times thinking that you’d find all the pluses you mentioned in Sinclair’s work as well.

    If you suscribe to her Yahoo group you’ll be able to download the first 5 chapters of almost all her books so you can get a taste of her writing.

    Thank you for the review!

  5. Najida says:

    I love SciFi/Paranormals too.  Thanks for the well written review.  I’m off to find this book now!

  6. Lisa says:

    I discovered Linnea Sinclair after hearing her agent, Kristin Nelson, talk at RWA about how difficult it is to combine SF and Romance, but that it can be done well, the case in point being Sinclair. I also enjoyed Barry’s Unmasked (and I have an autographed copy of it! ::neener:)

  7. DS says:

    I’m really torn.  I looooovvve space opera, but I’m worried about the balance between the amount of romance and the amount of galactic gallivanting.

    Wait you didn’t mention sex.  The less graphic the sex in a sf novel the more likely I am to read it.  So how was the sex?

    word: top53

  8. Lisa says:

    If you liked Barry and Sinclair, then you also might like Catherine Asaro, Lois McMaster Bujold and Susan Grant. I particularly liked Grant’s “Legend of Banzai Maguire.”

    More SF than Romance, but in a similar vein is Joan Vinge’s Snow Queen series. Gundhalinu is one of my most favorite “heroes,” period.

  9. The Liaden series of books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are a nice blend of romance and space opera, at least in my opinion. They are mostly character driven stories with technology taking a back seat.  (And if you are an anthropolgy or langauge geek rather than a science geek, there is a lot to appreciate from a world building point of view.) I’d recommend starting with “Local Custom.”  It’s sort of chronologically first.  However, the omnibus “Partners in Necessity” is also a good starting point.

  10. Amy E says:

    Okay, I have to read this now.  I love futuristics almost as much as I love paranormals.

  11. katieM says:

    I read the Liaden series when it first came out.  I waited more than 15 years for them to find a publisher so that I could find out what happened. 

    I’ve also read Sinclair and Asaro.  Excellent authors and wonderful romances.  Veihl’s Stardoc series is great, too.

    Now I have a new author to try out!!

  12. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed Veihl’s Stardoc series too. Also, the love story between Elizabeth Bear’s Hammerede series with Jenny Casey and Gabe Castaign (erm, especially in the orbital elevator scene) is very well-done.

  13. dl says:

    I really enjoy SF, Fantasy, & space opera…CJ Barry has some good books, but I don’t recall seeing anything new from her in awhile?  I find Susan Grant’s new stuff too corney.  I’ve read most of Asaro’s older stuff, still deciding if I like it, kind of a strange edge to it.

    Love Sinclair, and of course LMB’s Miles stuff is great.

    Feel like I’m missing somebody important here…it will come to me.

  14. Selah March says:

    Great review, Sarah. Unmasked just moved to the top of my TBR pile on the strength of it. Thanks. 🙂

  15. Erin says:

    I’ll put this book on reserve at work. I’ve seen it before when I shelve the paperbacks, but I hadn’t had much interest in checking it out. I’ll give it a shot now.

    I have to agree with Estelle on Linnea Sinclair’s books, although not entirely. After reading most of her books, I really don’t recommend reading anything before “Gabriel’s Ghost,” and that one’s a bit shaky. Her writing noticeably improves from book to book and so far (I haven’t read the latest one) “An Accidental Goddess” is the best one. (Whatever you do, *don’t* try to read “Wintertide.” I gave up in utter disgust about 70 pages in. Talk about an example of how not to tell a story.) She’s only been published for a couple years now and she’s improved drastically in such a short time.

    I hadn’t read space romance in years because of how awful most of them were, but Linnea’s books gave me new hope for the genre.

  16. Sherri says:

    If anyone liked the Sharing Knife book(s) then they need to read The Curse of Chalion by Bujold.  It’s also a fantasy/romance with a much older hero and it is my favorite book by my favorite author.  Though it may seem to start out slow, stick with it as it really is fantastic.

  17. Acai says:

    C.J. Barry is such a talented author and I a m sure this book is no exception to his work. I think I might run to the big store sometime this week to try and find it, or Ill just order it online.

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