It’s Saturday, which for all long-term readers of Shiny Book Review means one and only one thing — it’s time for a romance.
Some weeks are better than others in this regard. I’ve reviewed romances of all descriptions, plus some books that have romance encapsulated in them but are not predominantly romances. Tonight I have one of the latter in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s THE FIRES OF NUALA, surely one of the best books I’ve read all year. (Note: if you’d rather buy this through Amazon, here’s that link.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The main characters here are Sheel, who will soon be Atare (the ruler of his clan) despite being a Healer gifted with both empathy and the ability to diagnose by touch-telepathy, and Darame, an off-world woman and “free trader” who’s really a combination spy and criminal, but with one caveat: she only cheats other spies and criminals. The two share one night of passion, then wake up to disaster. The four or five people who’d been heirs before Sheel are all either dead or dying, and no one’s certain as to anyone’s underlying motivations. Darame is immediately a suspect despite having an undeniable alibi — she was with Sheel, and in a mightily compromising position, to boot — but Sheel knows that Darame could not possibly be involved.
The plot thickens when it’s discovered that the guaard around Sheel’s kin when they were murdered had been changed at the last minute in a way that’s extremely suspicious. This suspicion is contrary to everything the guaard stands for, as these complex people — more than security guards, they take an oath to the various noble families (such as Sheel’s) in a quasi-feudalistic rite — have been thought incorruptible. But when Sheel’s own guaard commander Mailan concurs with Darame’s assessment that at least some of the guaard have been compromised, this forces Sheel to start thinking outside the box immediately in order to assure his kin’s safety.
Of course, Darame immediately suspects another off-worlder in this conspiracy to subvert the guaard and kill Sheel’s kin, as the man who brought her to Nuala in the first place, an enigmatic career criminal named Brant, is definitely hiding something. That Brant has also made it very difficult for Darame to find out what’s happened to her mentor Halsey, who’s stood as a father figure to her for years, just adds fuel to the fire.
But there’s deeper waters ahead, things that have to do with Nuala’s unusual way of inheritance (half goes through a female offshoot of the family line, this leader being called the “ragäree,” with the other half going through the male) and the fact that the current ragäree-presumptive, Leah — Sheel’s eldest sister — is barren and is trying to cover it up.
Nuala, you see, has had major difficulties with radiation sickness over the centuries. Eighty percent of its population is either outright sterile or is “borderline,” meaning they may or may not ever be able to have children. And some — the Sinis and “mock-Sinis” — are so radioactive that people either can’t be around them at all (the former) or for not very long (the latter). And it’s because of the radiation sickness that this particular way of inheritance became common in the larger families where money and influence was at stake.
So there’s murder. Conspiracy. Greed. The conflict between what’s always been done and new, unexpected methods. A political economy that’s based on fertile Nualans going off-world regularly in order to bring back healthy genes and/or healthy people who wish to settle there, lest Nuala die out. A hereditary line of inheritance that’s different, but makes sense according to everything I’ve ever read, sociologically. And an excellent romance that’s based on competence, mutual regard, and shared values as much as it is about two healthy people in their prime being sexually aware of each other and acting on it.
Ms. Kimbriel has developed a rich, well-developed world to play in, and she does so with great flair. The characterization is outstanding from beginning to end. The world building is first-rate. The romance between Sheel, who needs an off-world bride but has given up on finding one, and Darame, the off-worlder who’d never thought she’d find someone she wanted to settle down with due to her chosen profession, is one of the best I’ve ever read in the science fiction and/or romance categories. Even the dialogue reads well and easily, which is no mean feat considering all the Nualan loan words.
THE FIRES OF NUALA, written in 1988 and reissued** in 2010, is a book that should be in every science fiction library as it is complex, engrossing, interesting, compelling, and outstanding. This is the first book in a trilogy and sets up Nuala, its conflicts, its vital people, and its unique and special problems as a world that you will want to revisit again and again.
Why THE FIRES OF NUALA isn’t already known as an outstanding epic science fiction novel of the best kind — complete with romance — is beyond me. Some novels do not find their entire audience the first time around, and perhaps that was the case here.
However, considering THE FIRES OF NUALA has been reissued by Book View Cafe, you owe it to yourself to read this outstanding novel. Especially if you love epics, complex plots with spots of humor, cultural clashes, well-drawn generational battles, or simply enjoy a good yarn that’s extremely well told.
Bottom line? Technically, THE FIRES OF NUALA is a combination of space opera, romance and mystery. Book View Cafe’s own description calls it “perfect for fans of Darkover and Pern,” and I can’t say they’re wrong.
But in my view, that’s only part of the appeal here, as I’d classify THE FIRES OF NUALA as closer to DUNE on an epic scale (more understandable, and far more fun, but lots of history and interest that reminded me of Frank Herbert) far more than it did any of the Darkover or Pern novels, even the most complex (such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s THE SHATTERED CHAIN or SHARRA’S EXILE).
If you haven’t read THE FIRES OF NUALA already — and I’m betting most of you haven’t — you need to pick it up, pronto. Or you will be missing out on something extraordinary.
— reviewed by Barb
** Upon further review, I’ve been reliably informed by Ms. Kimbriel that THE FIRES OF NUALA that I just read is the very same, exact version put out in 1988. Which makes me wonder, again, what was in the water that year that the awards committees for the various high-profile ceremonies didn’t even consider this amazing novel. (Shame on them.)
So if you bought a copy back in 1988, and read it and loved it, you do not need to worry about anything having changed. (But if you want an e-book copy to augment your hard copy, you still might want to look at Book View Cafe’s reissue as $4.99 for an e-book of this size is an absolute steal.)