Shadow Fire
by Catherine Spangler
(LoveSpell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-505-52525-9
***
An original and uniquely appealing hero steals the show from an exasperating doormat of a heroine - but the deus ex machine is the most uncomfortable bedfellow.

Other Shielders shun Jenna dan Aron because she has visions that foresee the future. She longs for children of her own, but knows that no Shielder will ever marry her. Then she sees a vision of a Leor commander on a warship approaching her planet. Jenna knows that he is her destiny.

When Arion of Leor arrives, he reveals that he needs a human wife to have his children. Generations of inbreeding among the small population of his planet is putting their future in jeopardy and they need an influx of new genetic material to survive. Jenna, because of her vision, volunteers. Arion isn’t happy about mating with a weak human, but he’s willing to do his duty.

Once on Leor, Arion believes everything will be fine if Jenna keeps quiet, spreads her legs for child-getting and generally just does what she’s told. He discovers that things might not be so simple when another human woman and an android named Maxine offer advice on how to have a happy and (re)productive relationship with a human.

Arion and Jenna’s fledgling relationship is further complicated by the evil Controllers who are trying to take over the galaxy. They’ve left the small but fierce Leor population alone so far, but apparently that’s about to change.

The first thing I should mention is that, not having read Ms. Spangler’s previous books, I was confused by the barrage of names and information in the first couple of chapters. I had no idea who any of these people were and wasn’t sure why I should care.

Fortunately, I was quickly distracted by the hero. Arion, like all Leors, is the result of crossbreeding between humans and a species of (presumably) intelligent lizards. He is completely hairless and cold-blooded, although, readers will be relieved to know, only in the physiological sense. He has a leathery skin with some kind of crosshatch markings on it and smells with his tongue as well as his nose. He’s also adorable.

For one thing, you just know the arrogant lug is going to get the alpha stuffing knocked out of him. Also, no matter what he says in public, Arion pays attention to Jenna and, albeit slowly and reluctantly, adjusts his behavior accordingly.

If only the same could be said for Jenna. She says she is determined to meet her fate with dignity even though it means mating with “the leader of a barbaric and cruel race.” Unfortunately, Jenna apparently believes it’s dignified to dissolve into shrieking hysteria whenever she’s confronted by what, in her limited opinion, represents the barbarism of the Leors. No matter how often Jenna sees evidence that her husband’s people are more complex and humane than she gives them credit for, she just keeps on sobbing about what uncivilized carnivorous meanies they are. What begins as understandable culture shock quickly turns into tedious self-righteousness.

Yes, some Leors are cruel to Jenna. Jenna’s ‘dignified’ response is to lie down and invite them to wipe their feet on her again.

Fortunately, when Arion and Jenna are alone together, the romantic and sexual tension between them builds nicely. When Jenna is concentrating on Arion as an individual and not on her prejudices about the whole race, the reading experience is much, much more satisfying.

Then, when Jenna finally gets enough backbone to stand up for herself as well as prove herself worthy of her mate and her new people, the author discovers that she’s painted herself into a corner and a god arrives in a machine to save the day. Gee, that made it all worthwhile.

Whether or not you enjoy this book will probably depend on what your hot buttons are. There’s nice entertainment here if you can overlook the one-dimensional heroine and a plot device that should have disappeared into obscurity along with the ancient Romans who invented it.

-- Judi McKee


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