Last summer I discovered the Liaden Universe books written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. What a discovery! Not since I was a teenager and read the early Dragonriders of Pern books by Anne McCaffrey had I found science fiction books that so successfully combined adventure, personal relationships, and romance in a completely new and believable universe. Having heard a bit of the buzz that surrounded Patti O’Shea’s debut, I had some hope that I might discover just such another book. Those hopes were dashed. Ravyn’s Flight is solidly written and yet wholly ambivalent about just what kind of book it wants to be. Or should I say the author wants to have her cake and eat it too?
The titular Ravyn Verdier is the communications specialist on the Colonization Assessment Team (CAT) sent to study Jarved 9, a planet light years away from Earth. When Ravyn finds herself the only survivor of a mass killing that leaves her entire team dead and mutilated, she understandably goes into shock and crawls under a bed to hide when she hears noises. Captain Damon Brody of Western Alliance Spec Ops and his team of six, recently arrived on Jarved 9 for training exercises, arrive at the CAT settlement in response to an emergency beacon. Though Damon temporarily alleviates Ravyn’s fears that the killer(s) has returned, their trouble is only beginning. While he spends time comforting and then questioning her, his team is killed as well and the two are forced to begin a trek to the only place on the planet that is defensible – the mysterious, alien, deserted, Old City.
My very first reaction was favorable. The hero and heroine are forced into close proximity on an alien planet. They must count on each other to survive and they face the very real threats of that alien planet and the murderous entity they’re trying to escape. This certainly worked to whet my interest for an adventure/romance set in space, one that seemed ready to balance those aspects believably. Balance is the key word in that sentence. It was so quickly lost. Considering that this was supposed to be a science fiction/futuristic romance, once the duo is on their way to the Old City it becomes all too easy to forget that they’re on another planet. They run into an occasional alien animal or plant, but could just as easily be trekking through the Amazon for all the author uses the futuristic/other worldly elements to tell this story. Readers describe the lack of detail in historicals as wallpaper writing. Since this is a futuristic, let’s call it aluminum siding instead.
Though the alien setting was lacking – I won’t even get started on the eventual unsatisfying explanation for the Old City – my real problems with the book arose out of what seems like an ambivalence on the author’s part towards her female characters. The basic through line for the primary romance (and the secondary one as well) is SEALS in Space. Damon is a Special Ops soldier and as alpha as they come. That’s fine. Damon and Ravyn’s brother Alex, another Spec Ops officer who appears later, are what they are, and stay pretty true to how they’re drawn. Not so the women in O’Shea’s universe.
The author tells us one thing over and over about Ravyn and shows us something quite different. What the reader is told about Ravyn is that she’s a girly-girl who just wants a shower – proof in Damon’s eyes that women can never be Spec Ops soldiers. The reader is repeatedly hit over the head with the fact that though she’s one of the few, the proud, etc. to be chosen for the highly dangerous, challenging job of being a CAT member on an alien planet, she’s still a truly feminine heroine in need of protection and saving. That’s what the reader is told.
What the reader is shown is a professional who’s making the best of a dire situation. She not only keeps up with Damon, she eventually rescues him and fully participates in their battles with the alien. The author makes some attempt to meld the two versions of her characterization by describing Ravyn as having had this confidence problem about being a coward and “just a weak female” since forever. It’s supposed to be the growth her character goes through as they make their journey. We’re supposed to see the progression from timid to strong, from coward to confident, loved women. I didn’t see it. All I saw was an author attempting to have a “strong” heroine, but one who wouldn’t come across as unfeminine and somehow lacking as a romantic lead. The Ravyn we’re shown would never have these kinds of mental gymnastics going on and the Ravyn we’re told about could never do what Ravyn does. It wasn’t even tenable given the constraints of the storyline as set-up by the author; the reader is told that Ravyn had to go through extensive psychological and physical testing before being chosen for CAT membership. Wouldn’t someone have spotted this kind of disconnect? Would someone who’s always considered herself a coward have been chosen for a highly dangerous and uncertain mission?
This debut employs too many cop-outs, and that’s a problem I see all too frequently in futuristic romance. Just because this is a romance doesn’t mean an author gets a pass on her world-building and characterization. Her heroine is strong, but don’t worry, she’s not too strong. She’s still a female in need of the big strong hero who can take care of her all the rest of their lives. The alien planet ends up pretty warm and fuzzy. And Ms. O’Shea wrote herself into such a corner with her over-the-top, supervillainous killer that she wasn’t able to bring off the only part of the book in which I still had some interest.
That being said, the pacing works and the mystery of the killings interested me enough so that I could still develop a new frustration with the denouement. But that’s not enough for a recommendation for something that is supposed to be a pleasurable read. Not by a long shot.