Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review - Catch the Lightning by Catherine Asaro

Short review: Tina finds a man from space who falls in love with her. Then her troubles begin.

Tina's beau is lost
Is he from the far future?
Or just somewhere else?

Full review: Impoverished and orphaned, a seventeen year old Latina named Tina works as a waitress while dreaming of going to college and escaping her gang-dominated neighborhood. Tina was abandoned by her father, lost her mother to circumstances and her protective cousin to drugs and gang violence, leaving her alone to dodge the local criminal strongman. And one night she comes across an imposing but seemingly friendly stranger on her way home from work. And her life changes. And the fate of three interstellar nations changes as well.

Although Catch the Lightning was the second book published in the Skolian Saga, the events depicted in its pages take place near the end of the long story arc of the series. This only becomes clear as the story unfolds, and a reader who has read Primary Inversion will notice that many events described by the main character in Catch the Lightning don't seem to connect well to the events from the first book in the series, which can be disconcerting until one realizes that most of the books in the Skolian Saga take place in between these two stories. In this regard, it seems that Asaro drew from the same well that J. Michael Straczynski often did when writing Babylon 5, showing the reader how the story ends, but not really showing how the story got there. Which highlights that the critical element in many stories is not the ending, but the journey to the ending.

In addition, the story is told as a recollection as Tina recalls the events after the fact, letting the reader know that she survives to the end. But once again, the interesting question is not whether Tina survives or not, but rather what happens to her on the way and where she ends up. And it all starts when she meets Althor, a mysterious man in a black sleeveless outfit, under a streetlamp in Los Angeles in 1987. He seems friendly, but strange, especially once she notices his gold skin, purple hair, and double-lidded eyes. And this, coupled with his odd attire, which she mistakes for gang clothes, makes her question his proffered story that he was on his way to a formal reception with the President and got sidetracked. Of course, his story turns out to be absolutely true, which is just the first revelation that turns Tina's expectations upside down.

One of the recurring themes in the book is the confounding of expectations - both of the reader and of the characters. Tina is frightened by Althor's imposing appearance, but he turns out to be entirely unlike what she expects. His alien appearance and manners (including his blue colored blood) belie his humanity, but at the same time, at times he seems to be more machine than human. Althor is at the same time, a man, a machine, his ship, and himself. Althor's ship is Althor, and yet also not Althor. The story starts in Los Angeles in 1987, which results in the reader making certain assumptions - assumptions that on several points prove to be ill-founded. People that seem untrustworthy turn out to be reliable, and old friends turn out to be enemies. Time travel turns out to not actually be time travel, but instead Reiman sheet transitions. Tina has no measurable power as a telepath, but is able to establish a telepathic connection with Althor and his ship and turns out to be the key to reviving a fading empire's hopes of survival. Over and over again, the novel flips the reader's expectations, leading to a story that is continuously changing, and even though one knows that Tina survives, almost everything else seems to be up for grabs.

That said, the novel follows a more or less predictable pattern, first establishing a fish-out-of-water story with Althor navigating Tina's world of gangs and CalTech students in the first half, and then Tina forced to deal with Althor's world of shifting interstellar alliances and dynastic politics in the second half of the book. And though their courtship is established at a break neck pace, and is to a certain extent genetically predetermined, it doesn't seem forced. And even though the reader pretty much knows what Tina will do when presented with the choice to go with Althor to an uncertain and alien future or stay with her familiar life and a relatively safe alternative, the choice she is presented with is a real choice - differentiating the story from many other romantic story lines in which many present the main character with the false choice of a good choice and a second clearly inferior alternative. Despite the knowing which path Tina will take the reader can see that the choice is not an easy one, which makes the subsequent struggles she faces that much more poignant.

Because despite returning to a world in which Althor is not only an elite warrior, but also a prince, they face an uphill struggle. As one might guess, when one has more authority, one has bigger enemies, and Althor's enemies loom large. And once again Asaro doesn't let her characters off the hook, because even though the penultimate villain in the second half of the book is misguided, foolish, and probably insane, his rage at Althor and the regime that Althor represents is justified. As she did in Primary Inversion, Asaro doesn't pretend that those living on the low end of the totem pole  under a government that exalts the elite and effectively disenfranchises the rest of the populace will be happy with their lot, no matter how necessary exigencies may make such a system. It is this refusal to make the opposition wholly evil that separates Asaro's book from lesser works, because even though the ultimate villain is, as with most Traders in the Skolian Saga, an irredeemable monster, the dissent that underlies the actions of those that deliver Althor to him gives the story a depth that merely having a collection of wooden villains would lack.

As it is presaged in the opening pages, it will surprise no one that in the end Tina ends up ensconced deep in the advanced technological civilization that Althor hails from. But what matters is the path she took to get there, and the layered story that Asaro provides detailing that path is well worth reading. Even the end where Tina ends up on a desert planet with sword wielding bodyguards (and why do sword-wielding desert dwellers show up so often in science fiction) contains a few unexpected twists that keep the reader guessing. Overall Catch the Lightning accomplishes the difficult task of being both a good second book and a good continuing volume in the multibook Skolian Saga epic.

Previous book in the series: Primary Inversion
Subsequent book in the series: The Last Hawk

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  1. This sounds cool. I've been looking for another scifi series to read.

  2. I loved the first book in the series, so thank you for this review.I'm looking forward to reading this one now.

  3. @Julia: Its been good so far, there are eleven more books in the series and at least one more planned. I'm reading them in the order they were published in, which is different from the chronological order of the events in the series (for example the events in the Skyfall, Schism, and The Final Key trilogy take place before any of the events from the other books in the series).

  4. @Julianne: At InConJunction this past week Asaro said she had revised Catch the Lightning recently. I don't remember if the revised version has been printed or not, but if it has, the newer version might be slightly different from the one I have reviewed here.