The Last Hour of GannWendy Clyde here. Dabney Grinnan and I are discussing R. Lee Smith’s The Last Hour of Gann, which was released in September.

While Dabney had read Ms. Smith, this is my first book by her and I was very pleasantly surprised by the book’s quality and complexity. When Dabney suggested we have a Pandora’s Box discussion I leapt at the chance, because The Last Hour of Gann is a thought-provoking, emotional book that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading. It’s difficult to provide a brief synopsis for such an epic book, but the basic premise is the story of an earth woman, Amber Bierce, who, seeking to leave her bleak life on Earth behind, signs on for interplanetary colonization, dragging her reluctant sister along. Their ship crashes on an alien planet with thousands of human lives lost. Chances for the few survivors to flourish are slim to none until the party meets with an indigenous lizard-man, the warrior-priest Uyane Meoraq. Meoraq is on a religious pilgrimage when he encounters the flat-faced, soft-skinned humans. Deciding that there are lessons to be learned from this alien species he agrees to help them survive and allows them to travel with him to the temple he’s seeking. He finds Amber the most intriguing of all the humans and the two soon develop a friendship that deepens into attraction.

Wendy: Dabney, I adored this book. Never having read Smith before I had no idea that I was in for a marathon of nonstop reading while my home went to hell all around me. Having more experience with Smith’s books, was it what you were expecting? Did you like it?

Dabney: I did. And as for what I was expecting, I’d have to say that one of the cool things about Ms. Smith’s work is that each book is wildly different. They all are sci-fi erotica/romance, but the plot and characters in each are distinctly different. In Heat, another book by Ms. Smith I like, the setting is Earth, there are just two aliens, and there are two compelling love stories. Heat is gripping because it’s a thriller, with one alien working against the clock to stop the other. That sense of urgency is missing in The Last Hour of Gann but the latter is just as interesting.

Wendy: This book was certainly different from any of the other romances I’ve read. Inter-species love has been explored before, of course, but never so successfully and somehow realistically, in my opinion. That the main characters were different species seemed not as much a means of titillating readers as it was a natural progression of a fantastic, sexy, romance.

Dabney: I have to say, other than Heat, I’ve don’t think I’ve read another alien/human love story. I read hardly any paranormal romance. What intrigues me about the world Ms. Lee creates in is the way she uses an alien culture as a measure of our own. The world of Gann is one in which men have all the power, sex is either a means of violence or a means of procreation, and religious mandates are the law. As I read the novel, I kept comparing and contrasting the planet of Gann–Ms. Smith’s world-building is so detailed and believable–to our own. It’s a book that made me think.

Wendy: She does hold a mirror up to our world! It also incorporates environmental issues, religious beliefs, societal pressures, and other heavy topics such as the result of inter-global war. And yes, it made me think, and keep thinking. I couldn’t decide if it was a cautionary tale or some sort of funny, erotic, pseudo-inspirational (just writing that makes me grin). There are so many things I want to talk about! What aspect of the book affected you the most deeply?

Dabney: One of the most perplexing things of living in modern society is trying to judge – and boy is that a loaded word – the culture and customs of others. In The Last Hour of Gann, the mores of that planet allow for behaviors that, were they on Earth, would be morally abhorrent. The most striking example of this is the sex Meoraq is allowed/expected to have with the women in each city he comes to as a high priest. The women have no say in this. They literally bend over and are taken by Meoraq after he wins the battles that serve as trials on Gann. In our culture we would call that rape. But Gann is not Earth and Meoraq is not, in the context of his world, a villain. In that context, his behavior is exemplary. In The Last Hour of Gann, that planet’s past actions were so destructive that the civilization that sprung up in their wake is a rigid and unforgiving one. It’s a culture I’d loathe to live in. And yet clearly the ruinous choices those on Gann made long ago are echoed in choices we are making today. I have to admit I’ve rarely read erotic romance that made me think so hard about the sociology of civilizations.

Wendy: Yes, I kept comparing Gann’s history to our current civilization and to the world that Amber left behind, our future. It all seemed so bleak. So what kind of genius does Smith have that in the midst of all the misadventure and strife she also demonstrated a great sense of humor? Meoraq made me laugh so many times. The way he would pray for patience, and ask his god why he couldn’t be a dick without his god catching him at it was just priceless. Did you also find him funny? Amber was amusing too, and I felt that the fact they both shared a dry sense of humor and the ability to laugh at their troubles added a wonderful flavor to their romance.

Dabney: Yes. This book has it all: rollicking humor, hot sex, grave danger, weighty ideas, and characters that are believable and sympathetic. Meoraq is a great hero; even as he is a warrior and a lizard-man of decisive action he is constantly thinking, questioning himself and his religion, and challenging himself to do the right thing. Furthermore he is funny. His relationship with Amber was wonderful in part because he, the alien, enables her to be the fabulous person she is. When we first meet Amber, she’s strong but lacking in empathy. On Earth, the society she lived in was so hellish that all she could do was get out of there. On Gann, despite the horrific things she and the other humans experience, Amber becomes every bit as heroic as Meoraq. I loved them as a couple.

Wendy: Oh absolutely! They’re the best couple of 2013 for me. I thought at first that the sex-with-an-alien thing would be off-putting, but in that regard their species became unimportant and it was all about the chemistry, which they had by the truckload. That portion of the book where Meoraq and Amber were in the wilderness alone was just wonderful, wasn’t it? But then, how did you feel about the violence and treachery and rape that followed? I normally skim through all that stuff because it feels gratuitous most of the time, but here it felt like a natural progression of events – necessary for the ending to work.

Dabney: I wasn’t bothered by all the mayhem in the plot. I did hit the 92% mark, thought the story was ready to come to its natural conclusion, and was taken aback at how much more plot there was in the last 8% of the book! The book’s end worked although it did leave me with a few unanswered questions. I think that was deliberate of Ms. Lee. She’s an author who is refreshingly uninterested in easily meeting reader expectations.

Wendy: Mayhem – perfect word choice! I had the same reaction you did to all the huge events toward the end, and I thrilled to the book’s conclusion. Speaking of questions, I had one that I’ve been unable to answer. Did the human’s arrival on Gann precipitate what happened in the last couple of pages or would it have occurred anyway? Also, was there anything you didn’t like about it? I had a real problem with Amber’s willingness to forgive people who didn’t deserve forgiveness, and her sharing what little she had with people who expressed no gratitude. Why was she like that? Because of how much her selflessness bothered me I’d give The Last Hour of Gann an A- instead of the A+ it might have earned otherwise.

Dabney: Well, Meoraq would never have gone on his pilgrimage had he not seen the pillar of fire created by the crash of the humans’ spaceship. I also think Amber had to be with him in order for him to discover what he did. Meoraq believes in destiny. Amber does not. I think it’s up to the reader to decide whether the fate of Gann was destined. I too struggled with Amber’s self-destructive behavior vis-à-vis her fellow humans. I understand that because they are the only humans on Gann Amber feels she must protect them. But I regularly wanted to yell at her to take care of herself. The other thing that didn’t quite work for me was the ease with which the aliens and the humans were able to communicate verbally. Had they not been able to do so the story would not have worked. However the facility with which they did so struck me as unlikely.

Wendy: The ease with which they communicated bothered me a little as well. Not as much as Amber’s needing to grow a pair when it came to her shipmates, but sometimes Meoraq would say a word and I’d stop to think “now where could he have picked that up?” Regardless, I still think this is one of the best books of the year.

Dabney: The Last Hour of Gann is proof that for a book to stand out it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be something that grabs you, intrigues you, and compels you to say to all your friends, “You’ve got to read this book!” I too woud give it an A-.

This was great fun, Wendy. Thanks for chatting with me!