There are times when some lighter reading is exactly what the doctor ordered: after happily losing myself in any number of books dealing with end-of-the world scenarios, galaxy-spanning conflicts or epic battles in ancient realms, a palate cleanser, so to speak, is not only desirable but required, so that books like Polaris Rising always seem like the right choice for the occasion.
What this novel promises is the kind of uncomplicated adventure, combined with some humor, which is exactly was I was looking for: I knew there was some romance added to the mix, but given the overall premise I hoped it would not prove too intrusive. Moreover, the story ticks all the boxes I was looking for in an entertaining, light read: a plucky heroine, a darkly mysterious male counterpart, a galaxy ruled by family corporations in constant economic and political warfare, and a mystery to be solved.
Ada von Hasenberg is the scion of one of the influential families at the top of the feeding chain, but since she’s only a fifth child her usefulness to the clan can only come from marriage to some other aristocrat, in that endless game of political give-and-take that’s been going on since the dawn of time. Not being very sanguine about that kind of fate, Ada escaped and for the past two years managed to keep ahead of the “hunters” sent by her family to bring her back into the fold – and she manages that until the beginning of the novel where we meet her as she fights the mercenaries who just captured her with the promise of a rich bounty set by the von Hasenbergs. Thrown into the brig of the mercs’ ship, she finds herself in the company of another prisoner, Marcus Loch, best known as the “Devil of Fornax Zero” and one of the most wanted men in the galaxy – a very dangerous cellmate indeed, but in these circumstances a very useful ally for the escape plan Ada is already concocting and which becomes even more urgent once she learns that her prospective fiancé is about to rendezvous with her captors to retrieve her.
From here on, the novel takes a path that could certainly be defined as predictable, if still entertaining: the tentative alliance between Ada and Loch is based on uneasy trust, charged silences and a smoldering mutual attraction that at times borders on comical absurdity, yet the author manages all of that with the kind of panache that helps to overlook the blatant (and in my opinion often unnecessary) deviations into a territory more suited to ‘bodice rippers’ than SF adventure. Luckily there is enough of a main plot as to offer a reasonably solid background, and even though it looks somewhat thin in places or prone to lengthy infodumps, it might be enough to counterbalance the main characters’ passionate interludes. That is, if it weren’t for some glaring pitfalls that become more evident – and less bearable – as the story progresses.
For starters, Ada and Loch are quite over the top, as far as characters go: she all too often skirts into Mary Sue territory, what with her fighting abilities and physical prowess, the handy gadgets she can produce at the drop of a hat when the situation requires, or the easy way she meets any mechanical or navigational challenge – it’s all credited to her training as a major House heir, of course, but still it sounds like far too much for a single individual. For his part, Loch fits perfectly the cliché of the Brooding Guy With A Past, a man with a gruff exterior and an honorable soul – and of course he’s shaped like a Greek god cast in bronze, circumstance that causes Ada to lose her hard-gained cool in more than one occasion
The addition of some secondary characters, who should have offered an interesting balance, seems however more a nod to the necessity of peopling the story with someone besides the two protagonists, rather than anything else: these figures – Veronica, the backwater planet fence who turns into a precious ally; Rhys, the arms dealer with ties to Loch’s past; Bianca, Ada’s older and very supportive sister – look more like stage props than flesh-and-blood people, and they are not given enough room to grow and become more defined, smothered as they are by the overwhelming presence of Ada and Loch.
Something I noticed, as I kept reading, was a sort of repetitive pattern that became stale after the second or third instance: the two protagonists keep being taken captive, one at a time, to allow the other to rescue them, and the wounds received in such rescue operations give way to another dreaded trope, that of the “hurt/comfort syndrome”: you can understand how my initial enthusiasm might have cooled considerably by then…
It would not have mattered much in the general economy of the novel, however, if Ada’s characterization had not sent such mixed signals: on one side we are told she’s strong, independent, capable and quite bold – at some point she goes on a dangerous solo mission to infiltrate a mining operation where a momentous secret might be held – so that we are led to expect a personality more suited to our modern sensibilities, not to mention the genre chosen to tell this story. On the other, she both shows a great deal of “girly” inclinations, like the meticulous description of the clothes she wears, that run contrary to the image the author wanted to present. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles if compared to her sudden about face once the relationship with Loch becomes a thing: she turns to putty in his hands, and ultimately bows to his domineering attitude – as if she had been waiting all her life to find the kind of man who would sweep her off her feet and become the center of her world. It would have annoyed me if I had been reading about a character set in Victorian England, but at least that would have been justified by the chosen time frame – not so for a story set in a distant future, and certainly not so for a character that until that moment had made of her freedom and independence the founding pillars of her life.
What do you do when you need a palate cleanser after the potential palate cleanser? 😀