If you’re a reader of straight science fiction, futuristic romances need to be taken with a large grain of salt. That’s fine. But there’s a limit to how much a reader can swallow. Shadower’s opening chapters are good once you get past the too frequent use of futuristic lingo – but by the middle of the book the futuristic elements become replacements for real conflict, and the developing love relationship falls apart.
Shadower is the follow-up to Shielder and tells the story of Chase’s bounty hunter/shadower partner, Sabin Travers. As the book opens, Sabin is rounding out a miserable day in a dive on the planet of Calt. When he spots a beautiful woman at the end of the bar, he’s intrigued. Calt is a planet of thieves, smugglers, and various other groups outside the law. It’s no place for an unaccompanied woman – especially one who doesn’t have the sense, as far as he’s concerned, to accept his offer of company and ends up in a fight with opponents who have enough tentacles to more than outfight her.
Moriah is a smuggler whose ship has been stolen. She’s stranded on Calt and hopes that gambling will get her the money she needs to pay her passage off the planet. Though the game ends in a brawl, and Moriah is outnumbered, she’s still only grudgingly grateful for Sabin’s help. The last thing she needs in her life is a man. Luck is against her and she is forced to use his ship as her out. She just doesn’t plan on letting him know this fact. Her problems seem to escalate with every decision made. Her stowing away puts her in possession of knowledge that could get her killed and Sabin gives her few choices once he becomes aware of her presence.
The early part of Sabin and Moriah’s relationship is the strongest part of this book. They reminded me of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, or Hepburn with just about anyone. Both are strong-willed people who are determined to make things go their way. They end up in a cat and mouse chase that changes directions with enjoyable frequency. Moriah stows away on Sabin’s ship, then later “borrows” it. He hunts her down to get his ship back, figuring that if he manages to make her pay a bit, that will be an added bonus. Their strong mutual attraction is evident from their first meeting and the author wisely teases the reader with passionate scenes that aren’t fully realized until the h/h (and the reader for that matter) are hanging by a thread.
It’s only when their relationship deepens that some major problems set in. Despite successfully managing her illegal activities for years, Moriah suddenly becomes the stupidest smuggler this side of Calt. And Sabin stops seeing her as a capable woman and begins to treat her like a frail creature who will only survive with him to take control of her. The reason this is annoying is that not only does Sabin knows what it’s like to lose personal control, he knows Moriah has somehow been abused and victimized. He’s not sure of the extent of that abuse, but he knows it’s there. Yet he continues to treat Moriah in such a way that she is forced to give up control again and again. The development of his character does not jibe with what the reader is told of his backstory. Moriah’s character suffers as well in these exchanges. She makes stupid choices that adversely affect her business dealings, for no other reason than to drive the plot forward. And when she finds out the secret Sabin has been keeping, her reaction is over the top.
World-building in futuristic romances was a topic much discussed recently on the Canwetalk discussion list. Most agree that while the romance is usually strong in these crossovers, the world-building is less so. Shadower falls somewhere in the middle of the range. Ms. Spangler tells us many things about this universe, but not many of them are shown. The Controllers are talked about as all-powerful, all-controlling creatures that both Moriah and Sabin despise. They destroy settlements of the people known as Shielders and sell survivors into slavery. The explanation given for this deep hatred is that the Shielders are able to prevent the Controllers’ mind-control. But there’s not one character in the book, human or otherwise, who is controlled in such a way. It’s difficult to view this as anything but a way to create tension between Moriah and Sabin. We’re not shown enough to make their universe real. If Sabin were driving around in a camper rather than a spaceship, the story would be the same for all the details we’re shown.
What started out as a thoroughly enjoyable book ended with frustration for me. Sabin and Moriah just didn’t seem like the same people who began the book. Their relationship was overshadowed by an underwhelming plot and setting, and overall the effect is disappointingly average.