This book was tough to rate, but ultimately, for me, it fell between a 2 and 2.5 star. Technically the writing is clean. The language was direct, not complicated, and the story was easy to follow. I was initially drawn into the story as I thought it had an interesting premise--a little bit like “The King and I” but in space, and I love sci-fi romance--but as I read further and further, it worked less and less for me. Following is a discussion of why:
1. The world-building was weak and often implausible:
The book includes one typical problem with weak world-building, and that is that everyone on the planet looks the same--”skin color, hair color, Tolari are all the same”. This is simply not scientifically plausible (and a pet peeve of mine). As an aside, I also find it a bit offensive--and I am really really not a PC person so something has to be pretty egregious for me to be bothered by it--that a race that has coppery skin and black hair considers a white woman with blue eyes to be “quite a beauty by our standards”. Wouldn’t they find their own women the most attractive?
The planet also has “no land animals larger than a flutter” (a “flutter” is a small bird-like creature). This lack of diversity of species is not plausible. How did the Tolari come to be by “parallel evolution” when the intermediate species do not exist? And without natural predators, why would the Tolari evolve the ability to camouflage themselves? Not well thought out. On top of that, this society is apparently agricultural, without mechanized transport or animals similar to cows or horses to plow field, haul crops, etc. That stretches credulity, in my opinion.
Scientifically, I didn’t find it plausible that a society that had once had the ability to travel in space (and all the other medical and technical advances that go hand-in-hand with that) would ALL voluntarily forgo using that ability/technology and return to a life equivalent to the Earth’s Middle Ages simply because they tired of “petty rivalries”. I am also skeptical of one of the character’s claims that “a Tolari and a human could produce fertile offspring”. This can only occur if they are the same species, which is (yet again) not plausible because even if humans and Tolari have common ancestors--and I don’t know if that is where the series is headed--the populations have been separated for thousands of years. Plenty of time for the species to evolve separately.
Politically, I am bored with the tired trope of a sole planetary leader, as opposed to a more complex and realistic political system with multiple factions.
I could give more examples or expound on the above, but I think that’s enough for one review. It seems like the author has thrown together some world-building elements that sound nice, but in a closer analysis, don’t work together. Now before someone says, “But wait, the Tolari are an alien culture; you can’t evaluate them by any human standards”, remember that the author has depicted the Tolari as very human-like--in appearance, in emotions (love, fear, etc), in socio-political structure, etc.
Finally, and more generally, the immediate setting of a scene and other characters were often left undescribed or only partly described. For example, I don’t think the reader was told any Tolari character names other than the Sular and Kyza until more than a third of the way into the book; characters were simply a servant, a guard, etc. It didn’t feel to me like the world was fully realized at times.
2. The romance is practically non-existent:
I have a note that reads “64% and no romance yet”. Actually, I don’t think the romance really came out at all until even later. In the story, the Sular and Marianne are together in his household for the equivalent of something like eight Earth years before anything happens, and even then, it just sort of...happens. I also never felt any chemistry between the characters.
3. The random WTF moments occur:
Such as Marianne saying that suicide is a crime on Earth. How exactly are the perpetrators punished? They’re dead.
Such as the Tolari referring to feet as “peds”. This is a classic sci-fi blunder, described in more detail in the SFWA’s Turkey City Lexicon “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” section.
Such as the Sular telling Marianne, after she has raised the issue of the ruler of planet courting a “nobody”, that “such distinctions mean nothing to us” then forcing her to become Tolari because otherwise she cannot continue to tutor his daughter because his daughter was a “high one” like the Sular and Marianne was not.
Overall, if you can overlook the flawed world-building and don’t mind a very very slow-paced book, you might enjoy this. If you are looking for well-built worlds or a vibrant romance, this is probably not the book for you.