Desert Isle Keeper
“Jane Austen meets Genghis Khan on the set of Lawrence of Arabia.” – that’s how author Kate Elliott sums up Jaran. It’s an apt description for a rich tapestry of a novel filled with adventure, romance, and clashing cultures, all combined with a certain comedy of manners sensibility about which I believe Miss Austen would have approved. Jaran is a perfect gateway novel for romance fans new to science fiction, and a wonderful find for science fiction lovers who value rich character development and powerful love stories.
A few centuries into the future, Earth is conquered by a much more advanced race, the Chapalii. As overlords go, they aren’t particularly cruel, but humans as always crave liberty. A young man named Charles Soerensen leads an uprising, but it fails. Rather than executing him as everyone expects, the Chapalii ennoble him to the rank of duke and grant him a fiefdom of planets – and then kill his parents in an “accident” that obviously wasn’t. Charles has only one surviving close relative and heir, his much younger sister Tess.
Jaran opens when Tess Soerensen is a young woman just completing graduate studies in linguistics. Her heart has been broken by a man who only loved her for the power and influence he hoped to gain by courting her, and she craves escape from her humiliation and the weight of her brother’s expectations. To get away, she finds a Chapalii ship bound for Rhui, one of her brother’s planets, and orders the captain to take her along. Rhui is home to humans essentially identical to those of Earth (to reveal why would be a spoiler), though a thousand years or so behind us in technology. Charles has established a research station in the Rhuian city of Jeds, and Tess plans to lie low there for awhile with friends among the research staff.
However, Tess quickly suspects the Chapalii are up to no good. When she investigates the ship’s cargo, she is shocked to find that the hold is full of horses. After the ship lands, rather than waiting to be escorted off as befits her noble rank, she sneaks off as the horses are unloaded. She discovers that she is on a trackless prairie thousands of miles from Jeds, and that a party of Chapalii have left the ship as well, in violation of Charles’s edicts protecting the people of Rhui from undue influence by the more advanced cultures surrounding them.
After wandering alone and hungry in pursuit of the Chapalii and the horses for several days, Tess is rescued by Ilya Bakhtiian, the war leader of a tribe of the nomadic Jaran people. She quickly learns that the Chapalii and Ilya’s people are connected, though the tribe thinks the aliens are merely strange-looking foreigners from across the sea. The Chapalii are looking for something in Jaran territory, and they have hired Ilya to guide them, with horses as payment. The horses – Arabians from Earth – are fleeter and more enduring than the horses of Rhui. For Ilya, a warrior with dreams of empire, they are a blessing and a weapon.
The bulk of the novel’s 500 pages are devoted to Tess’s cross-country ride with Ilya’s war band and the Chapalii. During the journey, she begins to answer the central question of her life: how can she fulfill her duty to her brother and to humanity, while still being her own person and making her own choices? In the simplest terms, she comes of age and goes native, but the beauty of the story is in watching it happen.
The slow and steady development of Tess and Ilya’s relationship is a joy to read. After some initial antagonism, they spend most of the novel as friends, bound by long conversations, common interests, and the bone-deep trust that comes from facing adversity side-by-side. Their attraction, when they recognize it, isn’t easy for either to accept. Tess has no intention of staying with the Jaran. She needs to find out what the Chapalii are up to and then return to her life among spacefaring humanity. She has never wanted a man like Ilya – what would be the point of escaping her brother’s influence, only to wind up with a man even more full of restless ambition and visionary dreams? And Ilya isn’t quite sure what to do with the first person he’s ever met who’s just as stubborn and outspoken as he is.
Jaran is Tess and Ilya’s story, but it is filled with vivid secondary characters. Every time I read it, I wish I had a brother and sister like Sonia and Yuri, Tess’s adopted siblings among the Jaran. And as attractive as Ilya is, if I could have any Jaran man, I would take Kirill, who is handsome, flirtatious, and filled with a deep-rooted joy of life. I could list others. To me, Jaran is worth multiple re-reads just to visit my favorite characters again.
Kate Elliott takes her world-building seriously. She has the mentality of a historian and an anthropologist, and as a result the Jaran are a completely plausible, three-dimensional society. Their culture drives much of the story, as Tess finds a place for herself in a world whose values, particularly in regards to sexuality and gender roles, are very different from the ones she grew up with. Also, the Chapalii are a well-developed alien race. These are not your Star Trek aliens who have blue skins or bumpy foreheads but otherwise act an awful lot like humans, they are truly Other, with a mentality and values fundamentally different from our own.
One caveat: As you might expect from such a complex story, Jaran gets off to a slow start, but the pace picks up once Tess meets Ilya and his people. Give it until at least the end of the second chapter, and then it takes off.
The only books I re-read more often than Jaran and its three sequels (An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming) are classics like the works of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and L.M. Montgomery. I hope this review will inspire you to get swept up in this rich, epic story.