Robin D. Owens’ first book, HeartMate, was the 2002 RITA winner for best paranormal romance. I thought it was amusing, but no masterpiece – your basic alpha-meets-spunky romance novel, dressed up with a little telepathy and set on a minimally-realized futuristic world. I’m happy to say that in the sequel, Owens has obviously done a lot of thinking about the planet Celta and the society that governs it. She’s done some real world-building, and she’s given us a very romantic and compelling lead couple as well. Heart Thief is a huge improvement and, simply, a good book.
Ruis Elder is a Null. Not only does he not have the paranormal ability known as Flair, but he actually negates Flair in the people and things around him. That’s a serious problem on Celta, a world whose tools and machines run on Flair and whose social classes are defined by Flair. Ruis makes technology stop working and unsettles everyone around him. His evil uncle, Buccus T’Elder (a T-apostrophe or D-apostrophe denotes leadership of a noble family) took advantage of society’s anti-Null prejudice and disinherited Ruis, and so our hero became a thief, living on the streets and constantly on the run from his enemies. As this book opens, Ruis is arrested and brought to trial before a council led by – surprise – his dear uncle Buccus.
Just before his trial, Ruis meets Ailim D’Silverfir. She is the head of a deeply impoverished house, and her family resents any efforts she makes to economize. She is also a very sensitive empath, which is a plus in her profession – she is a judge – but which makes her vulnerable to the slings and arrows of other people’s thoughts and emotions. Except, she discovers, when she’s with Ruis. When she’s near him, she can’t sense anyone at all. Not only does she find this restful, but there’s an instant emotional connection between Ailim and Ruis. Ailim is appalled (as was I) by the obvious injustice of Ruis’s trial. He is convicted without counsel and exiled from the city of Druida.
Ruis refuses to leave Druida, and instead holes up in the only place in the city not run by Flair – one of the huge abandoned spaceships that brought Celta’s human colonists to the planet several centuries before. It’s a museum, but no one goes there, since most Celtans find non-Flair-based technology to be rather creepy. It’s a perfect place for Ruis, especially since the ship’s computer (my favorite character in the book) is lonely and eager for companionship. Ailim and Ruis meet again and again, but their relationship is truly doomed. If Ruis is caught, he will be executed. If Ailim is caught associating with him, she could loose everything: her job as a judge, her position as head of family, her status, her home. Nevertheless, they just can’t stay away from each other.
In the book’s early chapters, it seems that the only conflict between Ruis and Ailim is external. They seem to be perfect for each other, but the society in which they live will never permit them to be together. As the book goes on, the conflict becomes more and more internal, until it seems that their differing world-views will be what tears them apart. It’s a very interesting relationship from beginning to end and a writing accomplishment that can’t have been easy for the author to pull off. I liked both the romance and the society in which it is set very much.
However, this book is not without flaws. Chief among them is the author’s love of Fams, which she indulges at the expense of good sense. A Fam is a sentient cat who shares a permanent telepathic bond with its owner. In this book, Ruis has a Fam named Samba – except, unfortunately, that we know Ruis cannot share telepathic bonds with anyone at all. Owens tries to get around this by saying that Samba doesn’t communicate telepathically. She talks. That is, she goes “Hhhmph, rrrf, phsppth,” by which Ruis immediately understands that she’s saying “Bucus Elder appointed his nephew Donax Reed as financial adviser.” Yeah, right. This makes no sense at all, and I think Heart Thief would have been a better book if Owens had left the cat (apparently based on one of her own pets) out of it. Samba’s constant intrusion on the action is irritating, although I should mention that I have very little patience with intellectual cats in fiction, especially the flourishing tradition of mystery novels in which the detection is done by cats. If the brilliant-feline scenario doesn’t irk you then it shouldn’t be a problem, but I think it’s both silly and overdone.
Somewhat more serious is the fact that the central conflict between Ruis and Ailim is her trust that the law of Celta will eventually result in justice. This would be a lot more convincing if the judicial process of Celta weren’t so obviously flawed from the very beginning of the novel. All we really know about Celta’s legal system comes from Ruis’s trial, during which it is amply demonstrated that there is no sense of due process, no concept of conflict of interest, and no procedure for appeal. Later, those who took part in that trial are chastised, but I couldn’t get over the niggling sensation that Ruis is right not to trust Celta’s laws. They really don’t seem to be terribly just.
That doesn’t keep the conflict between Ruis and Ailim from being riveting, and the progress of their relationship is a compelling diversion. Heart Thief mixes equal parts romance, fantasy, and humor. It’s a very ambitious book, and while falters in some respects, in most others it stretches its wings and flies. It’s a pleasure to see a new author getting better and coming into her own, and I’m looking forward to her next book.