Stargazer by Colby Hodge
(Love Spell, $6.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-505-52627-1
****
Colby Hodge (aka romance novelist Cindy Holby) makes her futuristic sci-fi debut with Stargazer. This fast-paced novel weaves a tale of a galaxy filled with interstellar travel, a corrupted central Senate and paranormally gifted characters. Quite a change from her usual historical romances, but Holby seems up to the challenge.

The planet Oasis is being ravaged by the Ravigans. Its leaders are helpless in the onslaught. They have only one hope: to send Princess Lilly (the sole surviving heir to the throne) to appeal to the Senate for assistance. To do this, she must travel incognito on a prison ship, slipping undetected through the galaxy. A simple enough task, until she realizes that someone wants Raviga to succeed, and more importantly wants Lilly dead.

All of her life, Lilly has lived under a dark shadow, the shadow of her mother. Born to a woman whose mission in life was to slay the Queen and Crown Prince of Oasis, she has struggled to pay penance for her mother's sins. Strength, honor, obedience, unity and nobility are traits that have been driven into her head since birth. Born a telepath, her gifts have been used by King Alexander to manipulate political circles and ensure the safety of the people, no matter what cost to Lilly. Lilly has always been eager to help, but is starting to realize there might be more to life than obedience, especially once she meets Shaun.

Shaun Phoenix is a doomed man. As a cryogenically frozen convicted murderer, he is to be sent to the deepest hole possible on the prison planet Rykers. A sentence from which there can be no escape. But Lilly sees more than a convict; when Shaun reaches into her mind, she realizes there's more to the story than a cold-blooded killer. After an attack on the ship, Lilly has no choice but to release him. Together, they must make their way back to Oasis, try to uncover the source of the assassination attempt and figure out why Shaun suddenly has telepathic gifts only permitted to females.

Stargazer has a wonderful plot with several twists that while not far-fetched are very hard to predict. The novel suffers from a slow start filled with too much action and not enough exposition, but quickly finds its footing. Once the basic premise is revealed, things begin to unfold neatly.

The plot moves rapidly, as does the setting. Lilly and Shaun take us throughout their galaxy at a dizzying pace in their search for answers. Hodge crafts her planets as well as she does her characters and one can almost envision the lush Oasis, barren Raviga and underground Pristo. Yet the book is not bogged down under the weight of description.

Hodge also creates some memorable characters: the eccentric telepathic Witches of Circe who kill any gifted males born to them, the Crown Prince Ram of Raviga who wears only red as a testament to his gladiatorial skills and Ruben, Shaun's lustful friend and partner. Each of Hodge's characters has a clear voice and leaves a distinctive visual impression in the reader's mind.

Stargazer is not an overwhelmingly erotic novel, yet the book garners an NC-17 rating due to violence and gore. Hodge is writing about a war with vicious antagonists and doesn't let the reader forget it.

This book is not for the faint of heart, nor the squeamish. It probably would've rated PG-13, if not for the graphic battle details.

Despite its slow start and often disturbing moments, Stargazer is an enchanting tale of love, deceit and sacrifice. It is also a refreshing reminder about what you can do when you don't know your own limitations.

--Amanda Waters


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