Once a Pirate

The Star King

The Star Prince by Susan Grant
(Love Spell, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-505-52457-0
Despite its cheesy cover, last year’s The Star King was one of my favorite romances. Who could resist a sexy alien male who thought that the 43-year-old heroine’s stretch marks were a badge of honor? Susan Grant set herself up for a tough challenge by writing a sequel to her RITA-award nominee. For the most part, The Star Prince succeeds. After only three novels, Susan Grant has proven herself to be the best hope for the survival of the futuristic/fantasy romance genre.

Ian Hamilton’s mother, Jasmine, was the lucky woman whose stretch marks were so highly prized by Rom B’kah. Seven years ago, Rom and his fellow Vash Nadah, the galaxy’s ruling dynasty, first made contact with Earth. Now Earth is a member of the vast intergalactic Trade Federation and Ian is the heir apparent, chosen by the galaxy’s ruler, who also happens to be his stepfather. Ian has spent the past seven years learning about Vash customs and trying to prove himself worthy of Rom’s weighty expectations. He’s currently visiting one of the frontier worlds to maintain its participation in the Federation, when he discovers that American Senator Charlie Randall is headed towards a nearby planet. Despite the trade benefits, there are many at home who dislike the idea of Earth being just one small cog in the galactic wheel. Randall is a vocal member of this Earth First movement, and Ian decides to detour from his planned mission to discern what the Senator is up to. Unfortunately, Ian has a bit of trouble holding on to pilots, and he has just lost his third one.

Tee’ah Dar, Vash princess, chafes against the strict traditions of her people. She has learned to pilot a starship despite her parents’ objections, but she is soon to be betrothed to a Vash prince and her freedom will end. No more flying, just oppressive restrictions and traditions on her husband’s home planet. Determined to change her destiny, Tee’ah steals a ship and takes off for the frontier, where she runs into Ian. She needs to escape from her family members, who are searching the galaxy for her. He needs a pilot. Joining forces should be a benefit to both parties, but their partnership is an unstable one. Ian’s chief mechanic distrusts Tee’ah and doesn’t hesitate to show his hostility. For some reason, Ian’s usually reliable starship frequently malfunctions, putting the crew’s lives at risk. Tee’ah proves to be a skilled pilot, but Ian repeatedly finds her inebriated.

The longer Ian and Tee work together, the more attracted they are to each other, a no-win situation for sure. Ian, who doesn’t realize Tee is a princess, knows he must marry someone handpicked by his stepfather. And Tee, who suspects Ian is the Crown Prince, doesn’t want to be tied down to a man who must follow all of the old traditions to earn the respect of the Vash.

Grant is to be highly commended for not writing “The Star King II.” It must have been tempting to create another gorgeous alpha alien hero like Rom B’kah. Instead, in Ian Hamilton, Grant creates a responsible but also somewhat insecure Earth dweller who sometimes feels as if he’ll never fit his stepfather’s too-big shoes. He considers himself a diplomat, not a fighter, although when pushed too far, he does know how to “kick some ass.”

Tee’ah is a tougher heroine to love than Star King’s Jasmine. While it’s easy to sympathize with her desire for freedom, her behavior occasionally borders on irresponsible and flighty. Her tendency to accidentally get plastered is played for laughs but the humor eluded me. Ian’s scenes with Tee’ah are sweet and often entertaining, although they have neither the chemistry of Rom and Jasmine, nor the older couple’s seasoned maturity. The novel’s secondary romance, between Rom B’kah’s friend Gann and the prickly woman he hires to track down the errant princess, has more spark.

If Ian isn’t yet the man his stepfather is, The Star Prince is actually a stronger novel overall than The Star King. The fantasy world feels more fully realized and the plot is more expertly paced. Despite Ian and Tee’ah’s weaknesses, I had a grand time reading about their adventures. The novel ends strongly, culminating in a climactic encounter that manages to be dramatic, romantic and funny all at the same time.

Did Grant experience some of Ian’s insecurities as she followed up on her breakout novel? If so, she needn’t have worried. If I offer an occasional quibble, it’s only because I now have such high expectations for this talented writer. Ian has a twin sister, Ilana, who is as wild as Ian is dependable. Could The Star Princess be far behind? Fans of this engaging new author can only hope.

--Susan Scribner

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