Susan Kearney,
The Challenge
(Tor, 2004)

The Dare
(Tor, 2005)

The author calls The Challenge and The Dare "paranormal romances." They are actually space-operas cum bodice-rippers, an uneasy alliance at best. Since they are published by Tor Romance, they are no doubt being marketed as romances, which is fortunate.

The Challenge tells the story of Tessa Camen and Kahn of the Rystani, a major hunk. Tessa is a special agent in the Secret Service whose last memory is of throwing herself in front of an assassin's bullet trying to protect the President of the United States. She awakes 300 years in the future, in the arms of Kahn, who is to train her for the Challenge: she has been volunteered to be the one who, if successful, will gain membership for Earth in the Federation so that Earth can gain the technology it needs to clean up an environmental nightmare.

Kahn's reward, if she is successful, is that his own world will be made a full member of the Federation and gain desperately needed aid to stave off extinction for his people. There are, of course, conflicts: Kahn's people are ferociously patriarchal, while Tessa has been a Secret Service agent and an unarmed combat specialist. There is a bad guy who is determined to kill Tessa. At first, Tessa does not seem to possess the psi power that is essential for the Challenge. Through a ludicrous and barely believable stretch of reasoning, Tessa and Kahn wind up married to prevent her being executed for a crime against the Federation. Nevertheless, with the help of Kahn and her secret friend, the computer Dora, Tessa does it.

The Dare tells Dora's story, as she grows a body for herself and pursues the Rystani warrior Zical (another major hunk). The threat this time is an alien invader from outside the galaxy. The inhabited galaxy has been protected for millennia by the Sentinels, great warships that are recalled by Zical when he unwittingly trips a relay in an unexplored cave. He must take a crew of specialists to the edge of the galaxy to reprogram the Sentinels so they will resume their guardianship. Dora, of course, goes along to add her unique talents to the mix. Needless to say, after several reverses they are successful and Dora gets her man.

It's very difficult, sometimes, to know how to deal with genre fiction as a reviewer. We are, after all, talking about a particular form with certain expectations on the part of its audience that may not always adhere to what we think of as "literary" quality. On the other hand, there's no reason to accept garbage just because it's genre.

These are not really garbage. They are well-written enough that following the story is not a trial, although, the author's protestations to the contrary, I can't consider them other than plot-driven books. (And the plots are somewhat contrived, but not outside the pale for either space opera or romance.) Kearney spends way too much time telling us what the characters are thinking and feeling, although their personalities do eventually filter through into the story. (We could, in fact, have done without a lot of the character examination, because the characters are there, although their actions and reactions are sometimes unbelievable -- several instance where you want to give them a whup upside the head while muttering something on the order of "Get your act together.") The prose spends a great deal of time on the edges of purple, which is par for romance novels.

The science-fiction aspects really are space opera of the grand sort, somewhere close to the level of E.E. "Doc" Smith as far as concept is concerned, but nowhere near as well-done. (Although the slimy alien octopoid is one of the good guys.) There is a generous helping of what David Gerrold calls "bolognium" throughout both stories. (I suppose the "paranormal" part of the author's categorization comes from the psi abilities that everyone has and are key to operating the alien technology on which the Federation depends.) I'm not sure that it was at all a good idea to blend the two genres, since both seem to suffer.

Graphic sex scenes are always problematical in a novel, outside of outright pornography. Quite aside the questions of taste or appropriateness, there is the problem of making them interesting and the danger of lapsing into unconscious parody. Kearney didn't quite pull it off, although I'm sure fans of contemporary romance will beat me up for that statement. There are numerous graphic scenes, particularly in The Challenge, and I didn't find them all that interesting. I happen to think that subtlety is more effective in erotica than blatancy, and I'm afraid Kearney's sex scenes only reinforce my opinion. (Although it was somewhat enlightening to discover what parts of a man's physique a woman finds most interesting.)

If you've got a transcontinental flight to deal with and not much to think about, either might be a good solution -- both are easy reads with not much substance, which is sometimes why we pick genre fiction to begin with.

by Robert M. Tilendis
17 March 2006

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