You know those old-fashioned historical romances, the ones in which the virginal heroine is imprisoned, enslaved, or otherwise possessed by the domineering alpha male hero? You don’t see those much any more – not if you’re reading historicals, that is. If you’re reading alternative reality romances, on the other hand, you may be seeing these coercion plots quite a bit. At least, I am. I’ve read several AR romances in recent years featuring a captor/slave relationship, and this is one of them. I can’t say that Catherine Spangler’s futuristic Shadow Fires succeeds very well as a romance, but it certainly provided me with a few hours of thoroughly cheesy fun.
Jenna is a clairvoyant who lives on the planet Shamara, familiar to those who have read this author’s previous books. She has visions of the future, and in one of these she sees herself as the captive mate of a Leor man. The Leor are a frightening race of humanoid aliens. As this book opens, a Leor captain named Arion of Saura comes to Shamara and demands a mate. He will only perform a certain vital service for the Shamarans if they provide him with a healthy and fertile virgin bride. A terrified Jenna volunteers to go with him, sacrificing herself to her fate for the good of her people.
Arion needs a mate from Shamara because the females of his own species are not very productive, biologically speaking, and his people’s numbers are growing perilously small. (We are assured that humans and Leor can produce viable offspring; this seems fantastically unlikely, given what we learn about Leor biology, but whatever.) Arion is arrogant and tyrannical, and the thought of being nice to Jenna doesn’t really occur to him at first; he expects her to do as she’s told and to stay out of his way. Jenna, on the other hand, demands the rights of a Leor female. So begins a battle of wills between them, as Arion takes Jenna to his harsh and inhospitable home planet. Jenna must deal with severe culture shock, an inclement climate, and – worst of all – her dictatorial new husband. As generally happens in books like this, Arion is moved by the sight of Jenna’s pride and distress, and grows to respect and love her. Jenna is wowed by Arion’s sexual technique and grateful to him for protecting and taking care of her, and she grows to love him, too.
You might think I’m strange, but the thing that I liked best about this book is the fact that Arion is so creepy. He really is. He’s a reptile. He is cold-blooded (and I don’t mean that as a metaphor for lack of emotion; he literally must stay in a warm place or he’ll grow sluggish). He is entirely hairless and his body is covered in scales. His preferred garb is the loincloth. His tongue has sensory organs on it, and so when he needs to find something he extends his tongue (which is not forked, unfortunately). He also likes to lick Jenna’s face and hair. In fact, I’m giving Arion a prize for Most Physically Repulsive Hero Ever. Cool! In the beginning of this book he is autocratic to the point of idiocy; even towards the end, when he is in love with Jenna, he expresses himself mostly by grunting, barking orders, and licking. He is truly unattractive. I just love him.
Jenna, alas, is not quite so interesting. As a character she embodies Wounded Femininity and rarely rises above that level. She is, of course, a virgin. She is a humanitarian who is horrified at the thought of capital punishment. She is a vegetarian who suffers dainty shuddering nausea at the sight of red meat. She loves babies. She is a graceful, passive flower. Don’t get me wrong: Jenna displays a good deal of courage and endurance, but she does nothing to move events. Instead, she maintains her tragic dignity while she suffers the hardships that life (and her husband) throw at her. When she does seize the initiative, she does so only in order to sacrifice herself for someone else. I really would have liked this book a lot more if the heroine hadn’t been such a wuss.
There are a couple of interesting secondary characters, who are mostly used for comic effect. One of these is Maxine, Jenna’s android companion, who is also researching the fertility problems of the Leor. Maxine is pretty funny. Then there’s Lani, who inexplicably has feathers, and who is insufferably annoying and not funny at all. Lani bears the earmarks of a heroine of a previous (or future) novel by this author. If so, I am definitely not going to read that book.
This is a tough book to grade. It’s one that I sort of liked, but not (perhaps) for the reasons I was supposed to like it. All I can do is summarize it and explain what did and didn’t work for me, and trust you to decide whether it will work for you. Shadow Fires is not an effective romance. I’m not necessarily opposed to master/slave sorts of romances, but there needs to be some depth of characterization to make me understand how people in two such different states of power can fall in love. Jenna and Arion are caricatures of femininity and masculinity, rather than real people, and the steps they take on the road to their happily-ever-after are as predictable as those of a minuet. However, I did respond to Shadow Fires on a camp humor level; I enjoyed it at least as much as I’ve enjoyed episodes of Star Trek. And where else are you going to find a hero with scales?