This one was a friend recommendation as well as a start to my quest for more women-written science fiction, and it did not disappoint.
Cat is a psion, a “freak” born of the socially forbidden union between a human and a Hydran, a race of telepathic aliens who have been exterminated by humans. His telepathic powers make him feared and hated, even though a past trauma has left him unable to access his psion abilities. He is recruited/coerced/blackmailed into taking a job as a glorified bodyguard for the Lady Elnear, a member of a wealthy, high-ranking family. Lady Elnear has already survived two assassination attempts, and her security team thinks a telepath is the only way to find out who’s behind the plot. They pump Cat up with drugs that reawaken his abilities, install him as the Lady’s aide, and then are somehow surprised when all hell breaks loose.
Cat finds out much more than anybody bargained for, all while begrudgingly coming to actually like Lady Elnear and some members of her family. He has to learn to navigate the world of the ridiculously rich and politically powerful, keep himself and Lady Elnear safe, take down a fake killer, a real killer, and a megalomaniac pastor/politician who wants to wipe out every last psion in the universe.
It was written in 1988, but has some terrifying similarities to today’s political environment. Lady Elnear learns “how easy it is to dismiss a problem that doesn’t seem to touch you directly – how deceptive, how dangerous.” The bad guy exhibits “the gravitational pull of absolute confidence” even when he’s saying absolutely horrible things. It’s definitely the haves vs. have-nots, with the 1 percenters making all the rules and squashing any who disagree. Cat is a great character, who struggles with right and wrong while he’s justifiably pissed at all the madness going on around him. Why should he stop the bad guy, when all these morons made him powerful? Why should he save Lady Elnear and her family, when they see him as less than human? Why should he risk himself for them, when they would never save him if positions were reversed? His struggles, his actions, and his failures make him very compelling and easy to root for, even when I didn’t always agree with his choices.
It’s not all great, of course (very little is). There’s a little too much going on. I hit what felt like the grand finale in the middle of the book, and then more obstacles kept cropping up, and more layers to the conspiracy, and it just got exhausting after a while. Plus, one of Cat’s few allies is convenient to a ridiculous degree, saving him just in the nick of time when Cat didn’t even know this new random character was on the planet, and then having all the convenient underworld connections Cat needed to get to the next stage of the investigation. Also, Cat makes foolish (and possibly deadly) decisions to sleep with the wrong woman not once but twice, proving that even if a woman wrote it, terrible sci-fi tropes can still exist (the female characters seem to only exist to amplify Cat’s pain).
But overall it’s a dense, well-told story about the dangers of seeing people as Others, and relying too heavily on your own narrow view of the world.