Shadow Fires
by Catherine Spangler, futuristic (2004)
LoveSpell, $5.99, ISBN 0-505-52525-9

I really wanted to love this book. Any book that has the guts to make a reptilian humanoid a hero gets the two thumbs up from me. I'm not being facetious - I'm dead serious. Any futuristic stories that break the tired "barbarian and healer" mold and explore fascinating possibilities afforded by the alternate reality setting have won me over two-thirds of the way. Unfortunately, aside from the hero coming from a literally cool species of humanoid, everything else about this story is classic "Too Stupid To Live Empath Maternal Martyr Healer Virgin, An Alpha Barbarian, Mating Urges To Make Special Baby, and A Puke Bag".

Jenna dan Aron has visions of the future and because of this, she is alienated by others - the same old Misunderstood Outcast Witch story all over again. But that doesn't stop her from offering herself as a sacrificial ovulator-cum-gestation whinebag to our hero Aron of Leor when he demands a healthy, fertile wife. The fertile part is very important to Aron because the people on planet Leor aren't making enough babies and they have to go demand from people on other planets to furnish them with walking big-breasted gestation bags instead. They can build spacecrafts, but they can't set up a mail-order bride service. Only in romance novels, I tell you. With the threat of the nasty Controllers (wait, aren't they all dead already in the previous books?) hanging over those two, Aron and Jenna will have to find a middle ground if they are to find some happily ever after thingie.

Everything about this book is pretty much standard futuristic "healer and barbarian" cliché. Jenna is the virgin/idiot heroine that seems incapable of formulating even one rational thought in her head that doesn't involve an unhealthy obsession with having babies, endless self-flagellation and self-recrimination, and misguided self-righteous martyrdom. She is a singularly cardboard example of stupidity on legs. When she has to act, she instead suffers and lets everyone ill-treat her. When she is better off keeping her mouth shut, she starts mouthing off and make matters worse, or worse, weeping hysterically like that idiot that really needs to die slowly and painfully. If stupidity hasn't crippled her enough, Jenna also insists on being a vegetarian and pacifist, which is okay with me if she isn't that hippie dipstick kind that loudly condemns everyone who thinks differently from her as being morally inferior to her.

Aron is also borderline too-stupid in that he starts off like a cardboard walking brainless beefcake - he treats Jenna like some slab of cold meat that I have a strong idea as to why his people aren't doing the happy dance enough to make babies. With men like these, who has the mood to do the happy dance? But I really like his alien hairless and cold-blooded physiology, and I am quite disappointed that he doesn't have a forked tongue or better still, lay an egg at any point in the story.

In a way, I have some fun with this book, in that "booing as I turn the pages and screaming for the heroine to die" kind of way that is actually quite cathartic. But pretty much everything about this book is standard futuristic cliché - infuriatingly stupid clichés, unfortunately. I guess the futuristic subgenre needs its share of schlocky and cheesy barbarian space capers, but I can safely say that we don't need one more schlocky space caper like Shadow Fires. There are enough of those already! We need more intelligent futuristic romances!

Rating: 64

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