Science Fiction romances tend to battle sequences and spaceships, but Homebound by Lydia Hope is set on a dystopian Earth.
In The City, an urban ruin that reads like a Dickensian slum, Gemma works for a pittance scrubbing prison cells. A surprise reassignment to the third floor, where the alien prisoners are housed, leads to her encounter with Simon in cell 35 – a filth-encrusted, unspeaking, desiccated male on the verge of death. Amidst so much misery, Gemma finds meaning in treating him with dignity, and under her care, he starts to make a recovery. But as Simon gets better, other things, including Gemma’s living situation and working conditions, get worse. This is a book with writing issues carried by plot and character, but one that SF romance fans will find worth a read.
‘Human caregiver for alien experimentation victim’ is its own subgenre of SF romance, but Homebound’s prison setting makes it stand out. Simon was experimented on prior to the story, but he is currently a run-of-the-mill prisoner in a shoddily managed prison, living on a floor with multiple other types of aliens, none of whom instill the same reaction in Gemma as Simon does. The details of prison life are strongly developed. Instead of the standard novel’s locked-down, high-surveillance, security-intensive lab setting, we have a prison with palm recognition locks, tasers, and not much else. It is rife with corruption and harassment, has outbreaks of violence, and is, quite frankly, disgusting. I loved that the main obstacle is ‘How can Simon heal enough to be capable of escape?’ and not ‘What computer hacking and duct-crawling action sequence can we use to get us out of here?’
In an alien romance, there’s always a balance to be struck between ‘alien enough not to be a mere blue human’ and ‘not so alien that it’s squicky’. Simon is definitely not human, but the physical differences aren’t extreme. He has gill-like slits on the side of his nose rather than nostrils, and he has three pupils, but most of his differences are invisible (four hearts) and similar to the toughness of shifter heroes (extreme height and strength or speed). More alien is his behavior, and I never became fully comfortable with his complete indifference to life and killing.
In the world of ‘show vs tell’, this book does a strong job of showing Gemma as someone raised in better circumstances who hasn’t lost the compassion she’d been able to afford in better times, but also not a pushover, especially in work situations. It also effectively shows how and why Simon, an imprisoned alien who has no fondness for any other humans, would feel connected to Gemma. And the author shows why this connection goes beyond gratitude – Gemma and Simon connect on an individual level beyond that of patient/nurse or prisoner/caregiver.
Unfortunately, the ‘telling’ in this book is not as strong. When Gemma tries to put emotions into words, it becomes cheesy, florid, or both. The writing isn’t just stylistically challenged, it also needs a good edit. There are misused words: “dunk” instead of “dank,” “taught” vs “taut,” “Alladin’s treasure cove,” and, most amusingly, a wound oozes “puss”. There are grammatical issues like tense shift and omission of the perfect tense. I was also very put-off when Gemma, looking at an injured Simon, thinks that he is blind and deaf, and
“Such a fate would be worse than death… if he was… then the air of utter hopelessness around him and his willful retreat from the world could be understood and forgiven.”
Disability does not need that kind of commentary. She also, at one point, decides that
“Simon’s bone structure was too clean-cut for someone prone to deviant behavior,”
which is not how deviant behavior works.
Overall, I enjoyed Homebound, and while it’s not something I feel a crushing need to reread, it’s definitely a solid addition to the SF romance canon.
This was recommended to me in the comments thread of a different review. SF romance fans need to look out for each other, so if you have other ones you like, please comment below!