|I’ve given up expecting another Skolian Saga from Catherine Asaro as long as she is writing for Harlequin’s Luna line. Last year’s The Charmed Sphere sorely lacked the sophistication and complexity of her well-known science fiction novels, making me wonder if Ms. Asaro was deliberately dumbing down her work for romance readers. The Misted Cliffs is marginally better than her Luna debut, at least when Asaro stays away from the love story. I know that’s damning with faint praise but it’s the best I can offer.
Melody “call me Mel” Dawnfield is the beautiful, spirited daughter of Charmed Sphere’s Chime and Muller. She has lived all of her 18 years in Harsdown, where her parents rule the kingdom that once belonged to Varqelle Escar until he declared war on the Dawnfield’s home of Aronsdale. When Varqelle was defeated, Aronsdale’s king sent him into exile instead of executing him, which now proves to be a costly mistake. Varqelle’s son Cobalt has waited for the right moment to storm his father’s prison and free him, and when he accomplishes this at the novel’s beginning, Varqelle is poised to take back what was once his.
Caught in a power struggle between his ambitious, hard father and his cruel, violent grandfather, Cobalt surprises everyone with his suggestion that instead of attacking Harsdown and killing many of his former subjects, he will offer to marry Mel so their child can rule the land both families claim. Mel has heard that Cobalt is huge, dark and terrifying but she realizes she has no choice but to wed him to avoid war. Can a big lonely brute of a man and a lovely young mage find happiness together even though Cobalt’s father once tried to kill Mel’s entire family and Cobalt is determined to conquer all of the known lands to impress his father?
The romance between Mel and Cobalt ranges from unconvincing to downright silly. It’s perfectly believable that the noble princess would sacrifice her own happiness to save her kingdom, but there’s no reason why, just several days after her first sight of the guy, she quickly becomes a sex kitten and immediately starts falling in love with him. Asaro utilizes one of the most annoying romantic clichés, as Mel’s body “betrays” her whenever Cobalt touches her. Haven’t romance novels (and women) come further than that by now? Although the taciturn man tries to protect and care for his new wife, the couple immediately leave the only home Mel has known and travel to the Misted Cliffs, ruled by Cobalt’s grandfather. Mel is completely isolated and friendless, yet the reader never feels her loneliness or doubt, just her Snow White-like ability to charm all of Cobalt’s men and bring light and laughter wherever she goes.
The novel is more successful when it focuses on Cobalt’s inner demons. His mother left Varqelle under mysterious circumstances when Cobalt was born, so the first time he meets his sire is when he frees him from prison. He spends the rest of the novel trying to win Varqelle’s approval and respect, while struggling to reconcile his driving need to capture more territory with his growing wish to be a good person who won’t disappoint his wife. It’s difficult to overlook the fact that this kinder, gentler conqueror is responsible for the death of numerous other people but Asaro shows his warmer side through his relationship with Mel and with her kitten. Big brute of a man being sweet to an adorable kitten…altogether now, awwwwww.
Varqelle was clearly the villain in Charmed Sphere, but in this novel he is a more nuanced character. He’s certainly not a good guy but he isn’t a cruel one either, and he is open enough to admit that he is proud of the son he never knew. The cardboard villain role is reserved for Cobalt’s grandfather, who physically abused him and his mother and now turns a creepily lecherous eye on Mel.
Asaro’s world-building skills are on autoplay here; the kingdoms are nothing more than medieval fairy tale lands without any distinguishing lifeforms. Mel’s magic powers are based on a scale of colors and increasingly complex geometric shapes. It’s a mildly intriguing concept, but certainly nothing unique or notable. I think the author’s true interest lies in the tangled political implications of Cobalt’s actions, which are just starting to be explored at the novel’s end. It’s obvious that there’s a sequel in the works, as Mel and Cobalt still have unresolved issues related to his new empire. What’s less obvious is whether or not Catherine Asaro can build anything worthwhile out of this so-far lackluster and disappointing series.