The Champion of Barésh
Jemm Aves learned the sport of bajha (think blindfolded fencing) from her father, even though it’s only for men. Her family’s dire poverty leads her to take a stab (ha!) at fighting in street bajha clubs while disguised as a man. Her unexpectedly brilliant performance gets filmed and sent to Prince Klark Vedla, who manages his family’s galactic-league bajha team. I love the boldness of a science fiction-crossdressing-sports plot: not a spaceship battle or galactic revolution in sight. While the heroine and the plot are strong, ultimately, the hero and the relationship fall flat.
Jemm is an authentically hardscrabble product of her domed mining homeworld Barésh, working her tail off to support herself, her mother, her brother, and his daughter in an exploitative and dangerous company town. The author makes you feel the poverty, dirt, and smog permeating Jemm’s life, giving Jemm the feel of a scrappy Appalachian or a Victorian factory worker willing to do what it takes to do more. I believed she’d take a shot at bajha as her way out. I liked her relentless work ethic, both at her lousy job and her bajha training. Her relationship with her brother Nico is complex and authentic, as she tries to love and support him as he recovers from a loss but also worries about his judgment and neglect of his daughter (I would have been a lot more frustrated than Jemm, though).
By contrast, Klark’s character never gelled for me. He hits all the plot points of “rich and powerful but cold hero suddenly realizes this woman is the only special different woman.” The book is the first of a series, but it’s spun off of another series in which Klark played the villain. References to prior characters and the role of Klark’s past made me feel like I’d missed critical information that might have helped me understand his character. But even with better backstory, his change in this book would have been too fast. Bajha is only for men, he declares, as part of the warrior tradition. Then he finds out that Jemm is female, and it’s just a couple of pages before he decides Jemm should be able to play. Plus, there’s the whole “My family will never accept a commoner… NEVER MIND THEY WILL BECAUSE ROMANCE NOVEL.” I would have preferred a different type of hero who sidestepped the royal thing altogether, and maybe even the wealth. A coach of an aristocratic sport and his guttersnipe prodigy, ineligible at both a personal and athletic level, have enough conflict.
For something so crucial to the story, bajha is minimally explained. Klark says with “neurons” players “can see… but not with our eyes. We can listen but… “ and Jemm completes “not with our ears.” I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure neurons don’t give you the Force. It’s going to take more of an explanation than that characters focus, meditate, and use their neurons to convince me that someone can in any way fence meaningfully blindfolded in a sound-proofed space. That being said, the sport is plausibly one in which a woman could hold her own with men. I also believed it as one in which a natural gift (and hard work; the author doesn’t gloss over the independent practice Jemm does before beginning to compete) could compensate for the advantages of professional training and professional equipment.
Jemm’s teen-boy disguise is repeatedly challenged by teammates who want to set her up with prostitutes and her own struggles to keep her admiring eyes off of Klark. And this is where the book really drops the ball: the author completely ignores homosexuality. This is not a case of Jemm wanting to avoid homophobia on a male sports team: “Acting like a young man meant she had to think like one, too. Revealing even a whiff of attraction for [Klark] would poke holes” in the ruse. Because no young man could ever have a crush on his male coach? This feels dated.
I did like the plot. I’m always glad when I can’t predict what comes next. I knew Jemm’s gender would come out, but how is a surprise, and it definitely isn’t what I’d anticipated. I was worried that the author had clearly telegraphed an outcome for Jemm’s brother Nico, but what happens with him, and another supporting Bareshti character, surprised me, too. I liked how both Klark and Jemm react to Jemm’s gender reveal, taking a new direction which is both plausible and clever.
The writer has some enjoyable turns of phrase (“He pressed the sleeve of his cloak to his nose, if only to reassure himself, with the residual scent of soap, that clean laundry still existed”), but I found a lot of issues in my e-advance copy. Grammar mistakes, typos, and proofreading errors abound. I didn’t love Jemm’s “ya” for “you” verbal tic and invented swear words (“crattin’”) to illustrate her accent. The sex scenes are generic and overwritten – nobody should use the word “loins” unironically in 2016, let alone twice in the book. A couple of passages could also have used an edit for coherence, such as a scene in which Jemm’s truck is overloaded with material to cover up thefts, but then after a small theft, Jemm is sure she’ll be caught when it’s realized her load is short.
I got into romance via Star Wars and The X-Files, so I’m absolutely the target audience for a sci-fi romance about a heroine who’s a competitive swordswoman and a prince who owns a galactic-league team. I liked it, mostly on the strength of Jemm’s character, but I wish I could have loved it. With a really good and honest editor, Susan Grant could be a hit for me.