A Conspiracy of Whispers
I love sci-fi romance, but I find it the hardest romance subgenre to navigate. Marketing is more disorienting, quality is highly variable, and the best reads seem fewer and farther between. While searching my library’s Libby app under ‘romance’ and ‘science fiction’, I picked A Conspiracy of Whispers on a whim, and what a fortunate whim it was.
Olivia Shaw is a Whisper, an assassin working for the city-state ruled by the Syndicate. She is also secretly a caricae, a rare woman capable of bearing children; if discovered, she would be subject to forced imprisonment and forced childbearing. Her latest mission takes her over the border into the wild forests of the Empire, where her assassination target is an Imperial soldier who just happens to be in the middle of kidnapping the Empress’s brother, Galen. Charged with leaving no witnesses, something stops Olivia from pulling the trigger on Galen, and she decides to take him hostage instead. But a road trip with Galen is no safe prospect. There’s the wilderness, the coup attempt, Galen’s enemy status… and the fact that Galen is an elite altus, whose body can detect her caricae status.
Altuses and caricaes (and yes, I had some twitches over this mutilated Latin) are capable of forming a bond, but friendship and compatibility are as important as a mystical fate. Galen is a genuinely nice man, not a beefy warrior archetype. He even has – gasp – a sense of humor! Olivia may be prickly and paranoid, but in a world where the wrong person simply smelling her could lead to a life as a sex slave, I found that to be completely justified. Watching Galen and Olivia on the road trip is delightful, as mistrust grows into mutual reliance. Their follow-up adventure, which requires Olivia to take the lead (Gavin listens!!!!!), is also an exercise in couple growth.
This book does so much more with the biology-is-destiny storyline popular in a lot of sci-fi. Olivia is a non-conforming caricae, aggressive and fierce. The author doesn’t make altus Galen a standard ‘dominant, possessive male;. Best of all, Conspiracy acknowledges that there are people whose sexuality and gender identity won’t align to genetic absolutes, introducing a transgender caricae and a female altus who is asexual. The book also has lesbian and gay secondary characters, including Galen’s sister (the heroine of the f/f sequel).
My biggest complaint is the scope of the coup and war that serve as the backdrop to this story. The opening small-scale survival story in the wilderness works so well because the author keeps a tight focus on the two leads and their cooperation. Later in the book however, the military conflict spirals into an enormous war, the characters foolishly trust problematic characters, and Olivia and Galen spend too much time separated. I found the action sequences confusing, and I always get frustrated when protagonists are surrounded by loyal soldier squads who die to ensure the leads can make it back for their HEAs. Also, Olivia agrees to a stupid scheme to force a Big Mis and a separation.
Overall, this is a very good romance, and I was quite close to giving it an A-. Only the realization that I’d end up skipping a huge portion of the page count on a re-read due to the war made me bring it down to a B+. If you’re a sci-fi fan like me, you’ll be very happy with this.