Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Rook is sent to the alien prison planet B-226 for twenty three years for killing his husband. The average life span on the hostile planet is three weeks. His plan is to live as long as possible to honor his husband’s wishes, and then die and join him. Upon landing he is partnered with a prisoner named Stevie to help guard the miners, or he won’t get fed. There is a strange thrill in fightening off the local fauna and surviving, or having a specific daily purpose, that Rook didn’t count on. Their days are stressful, consisting of violent episodes bracketed by fighting boredom for concentration. Through his POV, the third character is Rook‘s dead husband Carlos. Stevie walks a fine line of teaching Rook how to survive, being wary of any attack or signs of madness setting in, using him for company and sex, but trying not to care too much in case Rook gets killed like all his previous partners.
I found this plot enticing as I personally enjoy when an author explores the psychology of a character. This is a new author to me so I really didn’t know what to expect. The main question here was always going to be, are they just together because of the circumstances? While that is actually asked, finding out the real answer takes the whole book. Bonding over shared trauma isn’t bad as a short cut, as long as it’s not the only thing there. While they are just trying to survive, they don’t actually know anything about each other’s previous lives. What they do know is: how they each react in an emergency, if they are trustworthy and to what extent, how each deals with conflict and triggers, and what factors motivate or de-motivate them. I would argue not knowing facts about someone’s life, or even their particular thoughts at any given moment, is less important than knowing if they can be counted on. I loved that there were so many issues touched on like the complications of choice, personal sovereignty, stages of grief, and PTSD. Having said that, it’s shocking that no one even makes a mention or an attempt at trying to deal with said mental health issues.
There are parts of this book that at times reminded me of movies like Predator, Reign of Fire, Pitch Black, Starship Troopers or Enemy Mine. I mention movies because I saw this story as pictures in my mind. That the author manages to sustain a feeling of suspense and terror for such a large (80-85%) portion of this book is amazing. There are breaks in the tension just when they are needed. There are breaks in the setting, just when they are needed. The focus of this book is very narrow, with the characters in their own world, creating a very intimate rather than epic feel so without the breaks, this could have been stifling. As it is, I felt like I went through everything with them.
Romance is not the point of this book. Finding someone you love and can get along with during one of the worst times of your life is another thing altogether. Sex is also not the point of this book–mostly it is fade to black, or described as a celebration of survival or stress relief as a realistic part of Rook‘s life and circumstances. While there is a HFN/HEA here, it is done in a realistic way consistent with the flavor of the novel as a whole. I am so thankful this author didn’t just slap a bow on it and negate all the work it took to get to the end of this journey. I thought this story was great and complete as it is.
The cover designed by Aisha Akeju is evocative of desolation and beauty. You can clearly tell it is science fiction. I do appreciate the use of the jungle as both reality and allegory.
Published February 7th 2018 by Less Than Three Press