Off World, by Stephanie Vaughan

>> Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I know I keep complaining, but damn it, I'm sooooo behind with my reviews! Off World, by Stephanie Vaughan, is a book I actually read back in November. November, people! I'm 2 months late! And I still have other books from around that time to review!

*deep breath* Ok, ok, anyway, the very existence of Off World was a wonderful surprise. Vaughan is an autobuy author for me, but I'd kind of lost track of what her upcoming books were. So when someone posted in one of my yahoo groups about having read her latest short story, Sharing Spaces, I immediately went looking for it at Fictionwise. Imagine my surprise when I didn't just find that one, but yet another new book, and a full-length one, too!

P.S. - Hmm, does the cover say steamy gay futuristic to you? Still, I much prefer this to many e-book covers! Boring it may be, but at least it's not offensive!

Sarhaan and his band of elite soldiers don't know what to make of Caleb when his little spaceship turns up on their viewscreen. Believing that he might be a spy, they bring the junior diplomat onto their stolen spaceship and question him.

Caleb is no spy. He's come looking for Sarhaan's soldiers to help them clear their names of a crime they didn't commit. What he hadn't counted on was falling for the genetically enhanced Sarhaan, who seems to think Caleb is just a good time.

Set against the backdrop of space and Doradus Station, a place where anything goes, Off-World is part mystery, part romance, and all heat!
Stephanie Vaughan is one of those authors whose voice and characters are so strong that even when I can perceive flaws in her books, I don't care at all and enjoy them anyway. This was what happened with Off World. As I read, a couple of things made me raise my eyebrows, but I was so caught up in the hot and wonderfully emotional romance between Sarhaan and Caleb that I just glossed over them. A B+.

When his best friend is killed, young diplomat Caleb Adams suspects that the real reason for this was because her investigations into a recent rash of murders made someone nervous. Around the same time, a group of outlaw elite soldiers, who've defected with their gunship, begin to be mentioned as the possible culprits.

Cal knows this all has to be part of the cover-up his friend had discovered, and so he decides to take a small ship himself and go find these soldiers. He means to work with them to clear their name, which they'll accomplish by finding the real killer, thus avenging Cal's friend's death.

But when he finds them, as the book starts, things don't initially go as he optimistically expected, because the soldiers find it hard to believe that Cal's mission is as innocent as he says it is (can't blame them, really!). They think he's a spy, sent by the Republic to capture them, and one of the two guys who find him wants to employ methods of interrogation that would be decidedly painful for the poor guy.

Fortunately for Cal, the de facto leader, the big, scary and mouth-wateringly attractive Sarhaan, decides not to allow his more aggressive colleague to have his way. His prefered course of action is to simply keep an eye on the suspect, partly to keep him from harming them if he does turn out to be a spy, partly to protect him from harm. And "keeping an eye on him", for Sarhaan, seems to mean not allowing him to move from his side, even during the night.

The relationship between the taciturn Sarhaan and the more extroverted and inexperienced Cal was just wonderful. At first, it seemed that, unlike in the other gay romances I've read by this author, their relationship was going to have a certain clichéd romance heroine / romance hero dynamic, with Cal playing the naive, slightly TSTL, impulsive heroine. But as the book progressed, their relationship became more even. Of course, Sarhaan remained the more physically powerful of the couple, as well as the one with more real-world experience, but he quickly developed a great respect for Caleb's abilities and intelligence. As for Caleb, he never allowed himself to be dominated and steamrolled by Sarhaan (at least, not out of bed, and very often not even in it!), but stood up for himself.

I enjoyed the increasing fondness and then love between the two, a fondness and love that were excellently developed through the love scenes, something that isn't easy to do. This book has a high ratio of pages devoted to love scenes, and it's a testament to just how good Vaughan is at them that I never wished for even a page less. I read them word by word, and was never tempted to skim, not (just) because they were erotic, but because they were really telling me things about the characters.

I think those love scenes were so hot and effective and erotic because they were not really about what Sarhaan and Cal were doing, but about how they were feeling while they were doing it. I mentioned in my post about my top picks of 2006 (Off World merited an honourable mention), that something about Vaughan's love scenes reminded me of Suzanne Brockmann's. I guess "hot love scenes" isn't the first think that comes to mind when hearing Brockmann's name, but I happen to think she writes them hotter than many erotica authors. The reason? I remember reading something by her about this very matter, about how love scenes should be written (I wish I could remember where I read this, though), and she said exactly this: that love scenes should be about feelings, not about where exactly the hero has just put his hand. The description of what is happening physically shouldn't be missing, of course, but it shouldn't be the focus of the scene.

Something else I loved was Cal's delight in finding that with Sarhaan, he can indulge freely in what had always been forbidden for him. See, in Vaughans's version of 22nd century Earth, homosexuality is punishable by death. So while Cal has had some furtive encounters, they have been just that: furtive and hidden and as scary as they've been erotic. So when Sarhaan tells him that things are different there, that no one will care what they do behind closed doors, as long as it doesn't affect their job, Cal is like a kid in a candy store.

So far, so good right? The romance is just excellent, and there was nothing at all that I didn't care for there. The weaknesses in the book come with the plot. It's not that it's not an interesting plot. It is interesting, and that was part of the problem, because the mystery about the serial killer and the cover up was much too underdeveloped. It all sounded so intriguing that I wanted to know more and understand it better. On the other hand, though, I loved the romance so much that I would have resented losing even one page of it to a mystery subplot. *sigh* Off World is actually much longer than Vaughan's earlier books (both of which I thought could have used a few more pages), but I'm still wanting more!

Apart from the general sense of under-development of the mystery plot, there were a few other things that could have been better. Like, just how did complete-newbie-to-flying Cal find the ship when the military had been searching for Sarhaan and his soldiers for months and had never found them? And I also wished we'd explored Sarhaan's reaction to finding out that he'd been a product of an eugenics experiment. This is pretty huge, and yet it's simply announced and then ignored.

Well, so the book was not perfect, but it was very, very good anyway, and I enjoyed Vaughan's first foray into futuristics. I just saw in her site that it won't be her last: Off World 2: Sanctuary is listed in her Upcoming section. Has anyone heard anything else about it? Will it be about Sarhaan and Caleb, too, or merely set in the same world? Whatever it is (and whenever it's due to come out, exactly), I'm looking forward to it!


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