What did I just read and why was it… pretty good? Did you ever wonder what would happen if Star Trek’s Trills were blue, huge, and existed in the (copyright safe) Star Wars universe instead? Well Dixon has a book for you once you’re settled and comfortable in horny jail.
Plot: Georgie is one of eleven human women abducted by aliens to, in all likelihood, be sold off as slaves. Fortunately, before this highly unpleasant future can be made reality, the ship experiences massive failure and the women are abandoned on an ice planet with no provisions to die instead. Georgie is sent off to find anything to help them survive, only to encounter one of the aliens of this world, who is convinced she is his mate. Shenanigans ensue.
There is a genuinely surprising amount of care with which the story is crafted. I have frequently spoken about the way in which romance is dismissed as a genre as porn for unsatisfied middle aged women, with books like Fifty Shades getting pointed to as proof of the inferiority of the entire genre as poorly crafted, badly thought out, unedited trash. Frankly, I was expecting this book to fall into that category. I mean, come on.
Instead, we get a science fiction, survival horror romance that works just as hard at developing a believable alien world as it does at developing Georgie and Viktal’s unlikely relationship as two vastly different species working to understand each other without language, shared customs, and more than the basic shared body language. Despite the outlandishness of the premise, the decisions the characters make are thoughtful, logical, and consistent with who they are and their circumstances. The only real difference between this book and “real” science fiction or survival horror is that there aren’t any political problems to resolve (although hints of one exist for sequels) but there is a highly capable local to help deal with the terrifying environment, so space opens up in the plot for a bunch of sex.
One of the more fascinating ways in which Dixon explores the differences between their cultures is in discussion of consent. The Sa-Khui have symbionts inside them that help them survive the harsh conditions of the planet up to and including choosing their mate for them (based on compatibility for procreation, so very heteronormative). Since they do not choose their own mates, consent doesn’t really play into their relationships. Their chest rumbles for someone and that’s that. Though I continue to loathe “fated mates” and “soulmates” and the equivalent type stories, this is hands down the best argument I’ve seen for one, even if it doesn’t hold any water (the Sa-Khui have a 1:5 females to males ratio in the tribe and the symbiont, which is supposed to focus on survival, forces them to mate not only exclusively but for life, which means extinction is inevitable and soon).
Anyway, this extremely different approach to consent creates some tension between Georgie and Viktal and promises to lead to further tension between the species but rather than using it as a cheap excuse to speed through some of the niceties of getting to know a stranger (though it’s used for that too), it also leads to some pretty important discussions around differences across societies and demonstrates ways of being respectful of cultures you don’t yet understand. Viktal very quickly understands that Georgie neither understands how they do things nor can survive on her own, so despite the discomfort of ignoring the symbiont’s signals, he sets aside his expectations of what should happen and focuses on her safety and developing a mutual understanding. Likewise Georgie does not impose human ideals on him, just explains her culture and unique physiological needs and accepts that in learning about one another, good faith mistakes will be made. Not only that, but despite Viktal’s symbiont choosing Georgie, their relationship evolves fairly organically, if quickly, and is grounded in mutual respect rather than purely relying on the symbiont as the end all and be all of why they’re together. It would be interesting if in a future book Dixon explores a dissonance between someone’s feelings and the symbiont’s choice, something that was already suggested as possible in this book.
I will say character development is lacking. We know nothing about Georgie’s life on earth or Viktal’s past and they don’t have an arc. It is sort of nice to read about decent folks that care about other people push through obstacles together though, rather than having to learn not to be an asshole for the first half of a book.
It’s easy to dismiss a book like this as “sexy alien smut” (this comes up often in both positive and negative reviews on goodreads), and that is not unfair, but it’s also reductive. This is a surprisingly grounded story that tries to create a believable alien world and deftly explores very relevant topics around cross-cultural communication and consent. It’s pretty droll, too.
Note to readers: a secondary character experiences a very traumatic and explicitly (though fairly briefly) described rape near the outset of the book. There is also a sex scene which begins non-consensually – it is not violent and consent is very quickly given. I also give it some side eye for creating a series around white women being forced (by circumstances) to hook up with dark skinned (blue) “barbarians” that does give me a way ickier feeling than anything that actually happened in the book.