The one thing I require of a book that claims to have a gutsy, kickass heroine is that she actually does something gutsy, and hopefully even kicks some ass. All too often a heroine of this description turns out to need rescuing (by the hero, naturally) far too much to keep her tough grrrl credentials. Although I had a bad feeling this heroine was going that way, she righted the ship, so to speak, and went full throttle through the second half. Heck, she even kicked the hero’s ass at one point.
Torrie Masters is on her maiden voyage as captain of her own star freighter, hauling a shipment across outer space for her family’s business, Masters Shipping. She’s battled her father and six older brothers for years for the chance to command her own ship, and she’s determined to make this a success. Things don’t look good when the power core suddenly starts overheating and can’t be cooled down. The crew jettisons to safety, but not Torrie. She’d rather blow up with the ship than face her family and admit she failed. Just as she thinks it’s all over, all systems return to normal, and Torrie finally figures out what happened: pirates faked the core meltdown, and now they’re boarding her ship. Again, she’d rather be killed by pirates than face her family and admit her cargo got boosted, so she pulls her pistol and goes to fight them.
But these are no ordinary pirates. Cool and professional, Qaade Deter and his band hijacked her ship only for its load of Phellium, a powerful drug that heals the mind. They need it to help the thousands of slaves they’ve liberated. Qaade, a former slave himself, is the chief conductor on an Underground Railroad of sorts. He raids slave ships, sends the slaves to one of his safe havens for treatment and resettlement, then sells the slave ship to fund his enterprise. Once captured, slaves are generally “scrubbed”: given a powerful drug that erases their memories and leaves them docile and easily trained. Phellium helps them recover from this, but it’s hard to get a hold of and very expensive. Qaade knows he ought to kill the feisty captain who tries to stop him from stealing her cargo, but she’s gorgeous, and he doesn’t really like killing people, so he makes her promise not to call InterGlax, the galaxy cops, and lets her go.
Torrie goes after him, of course, because nobody steals her cargo and gets away with it. Qaade has just finished his business with a shady trader in a very shady spaceport when the trader’s thugs cart in an unconscious woman: Torrie. Knowing a fate worse than death awaits her if he leaves her there, Qaade reluctantly trades the Phellium for her. He realizes that she must have a way of tracking her cargo that he doesn’t know about, or how else could she have found him? Qaade offers her a bargain: help him track down that Phellium (so he can steal it back) and he’ll set her free.
Torrie takes the bargain because she didn’t know Phellium was in her cargo. Though legal, Phellium is worth a fortune on the black market. Her family refuses to ship it because it’s too tempting a target…to pirates. If a client’s been sneaking Phellium on Masters ships, she wants to know. And then she’ll put Qaade away, single-handedly, and that will really prove to her family that she’s competent and should have her own ship! This was the tipping point for Torrie. While she’s unwillingly helping Qaade steal back the Phellium, planning all along to turn him in, a woman thrusts two little girls into Qaade’s arms. Help them, she begs, and disappears. Qaade knows they’re slaves, so he takes them even though it almost ruins the whole theft. Once Torrie realizes exactly what Qaade’s doing and why, she stops thinking about herself and begins to listen to him. She comes to believe in his anti-slavery crusade, although she thinks he should call in InterGlax and Qaade refuses, saying they’re all corrupt.
The plot gets kicked into overdrive when it turns out someone is running a massive slavery ring, and has set his sights on taking down Qaade’s rescue operation, called Slipstream. And things heat up even more as Qaade and Torrie are forced into closer and closer quarters, where they can’t deny the sparks between them. Since Torrie never does anything halfway, it seems, once she’s with Qaade, she’s with Qaade in everything, including saving Slipstream.
Qaade is one sexy pirate, but I did wonder how every slave in the universe knows what he’s doing, yet no one else seems to. Slavery is illegal in some parts of the galaxy; isn’t he a hero for raiding the slavers working there illegally? I actually thought he liked thumbing his nose at InterGlax, to tell the truth. If his actions weren’t technically illegal, he would have been a rather moralistic guy. Because he’s an outlaw, he’s sure he and Torrie have no future, even though the chemistry between them is white-hot. And while Torrie is mostly as competent and capable as she keeps insisting, she’s also sure she knows best. Late in the book she makes a decision on her own that affects Qaade and everyone in his operation, without consulting any of them – because she knows they won’t agree. Heaven help Qaade if he tried to do the same to her. Honestly, I think she’d kick the crap out of him.
Unmasked is an adrenaline rush of adventure. I was hooked from the beginning, even as Torrie tried to prove herself more macho than anyone and Qaade was revealed as more Noble Crusader than True Rogue. There’s more than enough talk about how awful slavery is, and it was slightly surprising how many honorable pirates were flying around out there. But when a book pulls me in like this one did, I can overlook those minor issues and just enjoy the ride.