Desert Isle Keeper
Kelly Jensen’s Uncommon Ground is book one in her Aliens in New York duology, a story that combines mystery, science fiction and a bit of action with a tender and poignant romance between two people who don’t really fit anywhere – until they find each other.
Dillon Lee has always felt like an outsider. He’s gay, he feels disconnected from his Korean heritage and his unusual looks have always marked him as a bit odd. He doesn’t let any of that get him down though, and embraces his “oddness”; he dyes his hair purple and has facial piercings, which always get him a few funny looks wherever he goes – but that’s who he is and stuff anyone who has a problem with it. He’s returned to New York City for the first time in fifteen years following the death of his conspiracy-theorist grandfather – with whom he used to spend his summers when he was a kid, but hasn’t seen since he was fifteen – to meet with lawyers about his grandfather’s will, but also to take his ashes on a sentimental journey around the city’s landmarks to say goodbye. Dillon has stopped in at a coffee shop after an unsuccessful attempt to visit the top of the Empire State Building, when he notices a very well-dressed, attractive man staring at him from the queue. At first Dillon thinks it’s the usual – someone eyeing him because he’s weird-looking – but then realises it’s not that at all when the guy takes a seat behind him and seems about to start a conversation. But before they can exchange more than a few words, someone moves between them, grabs Dillon’s backpack (containing the urn and ashes) and runs off with it – and Dillon immediately gives chase.
When Steilang Skovgaard – Lang – sees the guy with the purple hair sitting in the coffee shop he has to remind himself to stop staring. But he can’t help it. The lanky build, the large, wide-set eyes and distinctive facial features… he’s gorgeous and there’s something about the colour of his hair that reminds Lang unaccountably of home. When Dillon rushes off after his stolen backpack, Lang goes too and eventually manages to cut off the thief and retrieve the bag, injuring himself quite badly in the process. Given he’s not human (not a spoiler – it’s in the synopsis) Lang doesn’t want to go to a hospital, so despite the injuries he’s sustained – which should start healing soon courtesy of the repair cells in his body – he sneaks away from the scene, only for Dillon to catch up with him. He insists on taking Lang up to his apartment – the one his grandfather left him – to help him to clean up a bit before making his way home. In a lot of pain (his repair cells aren’t working as quickly as they should), Lang takes Dillon up on his offer. And gets another shock when he gets a good look at the urn he saved and sees it engraved with a symbol he recognises as belonging to the Wren, one of the three clans from his home planet of Jord. Clearly, Dillon’s eccentric grandfather wasn’t what or who Dillon believed him to be – but how can Lang find out the truth without revealing exactly who and what he is?
I thoroughly enjoyed this story, which focuses strongly on the romance between Dillon and Lang while skilfully combining it with the mystery surrounding Dillon’s grandfather and the alien/sci-fi elements. These are fairly light, but are nonetheless expertly constructed, giving readers a feel for Lang’s home planet, details of his mission on Earth and about how his society works without large info-dumps or interrupting the flow of the story. As I said about the author’s To See the Sun, which I read recently, we may be reading about an alien civilisation, but the things Lang’s people are facing all sound very familiar, from unfair hierarchical structures to interplanetary strife and environmental crises.
The instantaneous mutual attraction that sparks between Dillon and Lang progresses quickly, but when they tumble into bed at their next meeting, it’s very clear that they care for each other and they both know there’s something more going on than just sex. I loved watching them get to know each other and realise they’ve found something special in one another. Dillon is like a burst of light into Lang’s life – he’s good-humoured and cheerful and not afraid to be who he is, and while he may have always felt like an outsider, to Lang, he’s beautiful, utterly charming and completely irresistible; Lang’s complete and unconditional acceptance of him is simply lovely. Lang has spent twenty-five years on Earth in order to find a sanctuary for his clan, has amassed a fortune and built a hugely successful technology company, but he’s a shy, loveable dork with a fetish for kitchen gadgets (!) and The author subtly underpins the way Lang has adapted and begun to assimilate and adore so much about his adopted home. When we meet one of his people, the contrast between them really highlights the fact that he’s come a long way from the duty-bound, singly-focussed individual typical of his clan he was when he first arrived. Like Dillon, he’s lonely – the moment when he discovers just how truly alone he is is quite heart-breaking – but together they fit, their relationship growing stronger and deeper as the story develops.
The mystery surrounding Dillon’s grandfather is very well done, and there’s a suitably dramatic, high-stakes finale that really shows what Dillon and Lang have come to mean to one another. Uncommon Ground is a little gem of a book; the author squeezes some large concepts – loneliness, love, loss, identity – into a small page-count, but does it so skilfully that nothing feels out of place. The novel can be read as a standalone – it ends with a solid HFN – but the story is continued in the soon-to-be-released sequel, Purple Haze, and I’m really looking forward to spending some more time with Dillon, Lang and the world Ms. Jensen has created.
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