I love scifi romance (the hotter, the better) but it’s often of variable quality. The good news is that it appears that there is a growing market for it, particularly in e-book form, so I’m seeing more and more out there. When I received the NetGalley short story, Awakening the Warriors, I confess I was so intrigued with the premise and the author’s voice that I went out and purchased the author’s full-length novel and other short and devoured all of them!
First off, I need to be upfront and mention that the author, S. E. Gilchrist, doesn’t have an actual name for this series so, to make it easy on myself, I’m just calling it the Darkon Warriors series since that’s the obvious binding factor. Maybe she didn’t want to imply that there was an order to the books since they technically could be read independently with little confusion, but I think it helps the reader to have the books clearly labeled in an order, so I’d encourage her to at least add that information to her Goodreads account.
The Darkons are a dying species who used to rule a large amount of territory but now are fighting the Elite Forces, a military controlled by a dictator who would enjoy seeing the Darkons completely extinguished from the galaxy. It may happen without his interference; the Darkons lost all of their women and children six years ago to a horrible virus and have been, um, “unawakened” ever since despite exposure to the females of other races.
I think it’s to a reader’s advantage to begin with the full-length novel, Legend Beyond the Stars, to get a sense of the world and the Darkon backstory. Captain Alana Knight awakens from her space stasis to more than just the requisite stomach cramping. It’s quickly apparent to her and the other female colonists supposedly bound for a new world that something is wrong. They’re no longer with the other colonists – no older women or men – leaving only women in their late teens to thirties in the spaceship transporting them to an unknown system.
Alana takes charge, finding the other leaders among the women and beginning to pump the aliens caring for them for more information. They discover that the space traders transporting them are not just providing a travel service but rather trade in flesh, a situation brought home when a group of extremely large alien males, clad in black armor and wearing helmets obscuring their features, inform the women that they have been purchased and are now Darkon slaves.
All the women take tremendous exception at this, with Alana shoving to the forefront and informing the leader, identified as one Commander Tarak El Rajan, that he is sadly mistaken if he thinks they will be slaves to anyone considering that they’ve been duped. The hard feelings lessen a little after they are taken on board the more comfortable Darkon ship, The Ark, and the men take their armor off. That they are all gorgeous provides at least a distraction from the women’s fear, which is further lessened when it’s made clear that, in Darkon culture, no man would ever take an unwilling woman.
Much to her dismay, Alana finds she’s not unwilling, and that there is a powerful connection between her and Tarak. He doesn’t understand why she’s not elated to be his slave and is baffled by her information that, in her culture, women are equals who fight alongside men. Before they all died, Darkon culture sequestered their women who were quiet and caring. But Tarak finds, along with his men, that human women, unlike any they have previously found, are capable of “awakening” Darkon men, and it’s not long before all but the youngest (Elise is only seventeen or eighteen) are “claimed” by the men. Alana’s spunky sidekick Jess is actually tied to two hot warriors and she’s not letting it worry her too much (who would?).
The relationship between Tarak and Alana is obviously the focus, even as the political and social piece unfolds. Tarak is an uber-Alpha, so if you don’t like a man who finds it hard to let go of the “you’re my slave” piece, you probably won’t enjoy this book. His redeeming characteristics come in the form of his POV which reveals that while he’s saying that over and over, in actuality he is experiencing a tremendous amount of attraction and affection for this woman who frustrates him with her insistence on being treated as an equal. Alana naturally vacillates between her overwhelming attraction for Tarak, who can really burn up the sheets, and her knowledge that nothing can come of a relationship between too people so unequal. It’s that inequality which leads to much of the mistrust on her part, compounded by the fact that Tarak is the heir to the Darkon throne, and she doesn’t buy into a fairy tale ending.
Great world-building and compelling characters can be found in this novel. Aside from the mention of Jess’s menage relationship, I actually thought this book could have easily been labeled “scorcher” as much as “erotic” with the level of explicitness and language choice for it’s smoking hot sex scenes. All of the sex was very appropriate to the storyline and the characters’ relationship, making it always steamy and often a little heartbreaking as these two people struggled to express their love for one another.
Gilchrist did an excellent job at seeding conflict beyond the interpersonal throughout the book as well. There is a lot of evil in this world between the forces opposing the Darkons as well as their own brand of villain (who will make you shudder at how horrible they are). I loved that the only unmated Darkon warrior was Tarak’s slightly older second-in-command who was clearly attracted to Elise, but too much of a gentleman to make a move on someone so young. I’m hoping a future book will be their story set a few years in the future!
Technically, the next book in the series is the short story (only 31 pages or so) The Portal, and people have expressed a lot of dissatisfaction about this one. It’s actually a very sweet tale of a Darkon warrior who had a brief interlude with a young salvager months before and has been looking for her since. I think that much of the complaining is due to its length (readers always want more) and the fact that it does jump back and forth in time. I wished for more heat, as the sex scene that bonded the two together was extremely brief. A little more of a tie-in to her having “awakened” him would have also helped, particularly if it had been made clearer that his experience was the cause of his pursuit.
The short story, Awakening the Warriors, has none of those problems, and even though its a mere 46 pages it packs quite a bit of heat between its e-covers. Fran is a geologist who signed on with a corporation to travel to a new world when her transport was intercepted by the Elite Forces. She’s being held in a cell with a group of other women of various species and they are becoming more horrified by the minute. Some of the females were taken away a few days ago and the remaining prisoners are beginning to think that it’s for experimentation. Word has gone out that a group of human women have succeeded in awakening the fierce Darkon race and clearly there is one government who would like to see them die out. The fact that their are Darkons in the next cell can’t be a coincidence.
Because the only other human female is a sickly girl of 15, the other prisoners tell Fran it’s up to her to sneak into the nearby cell of the Darkons, who are regularly whipped and beaten, and use her sexual wiles to “awaken” them. Talk about pressure! By the time she breaks into their cell, she can tell one of the men is already dead and the other two are covered in blood. She washes away the blood and tends their wounds, all the while wondering at their beauty. While their encounter is out of necessity, Fran is astonished at the heat and tenderness with which they treat her. She’s attracted to both of them equally and it quickly becomes clear that Jerrell and Quain have no trouble with the idea of her being with both of them. Yet Fran knows that she plans on leaving for home at the first opportunity since there’s no future with two men with whom sex was a means of helping them literally break their chains and escape. Or is there?
This is a very tasteful and tender menage that is further understood after reading Legend Beyond the Stars. I would have liked to see a stronger tie to the overall story arc, namely with explaining why the warriors were being beaten – combined with the missing female prisoners, were the Elite Forces attempting to discover more about how or why the rumored Darkons were awakened?
Speaking of tiny discrepancies, in Awakening the Warriors, the point of Fran stealing into the adjoining cell with the Darkons is that if she “awakens” their lust, they will possess increased strength and fighting ability, enough to overcome their injuries and help the imprisoned. In Legend Beyond the Stars, while there was a LOT of awakening going on, this added piece was unaddressed. The warriors were certainly loyal and focused on the women with whom they bonded, but no one made reference to enhanced abilities. Hmmm.
Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this author’s style and the world-building in which she engaged in all her works. I would say that anyone who loved Evangeline Anderson’s erotic Brides of the Kindred series might also find fun in the pages of Gilchrist’s science fiction romance (although keep in mind the men are waaayyyy more alpha than Anderson’s Kindred men!).