Sunday, January 8, 2012

Amaranth & Ash (e-book) by Jessica Freely

Sorry for how long this review is. Here's the short version: I enjoyed this book, although some missing quality, I'm not sure what, kept me from absolutely loving it. I found the romance to be sweet (by which I don't mean "lacking in sex" - there is much of that in this book, particularly in the latter half) and well done. The world-building is rich when it comes to the caste system but seems to be somewhat fuzzy in other areas.

The word count for this book is 67,886, which came out to 175 pages on my Nook.

Synopsis:

The setting is sometime in the future (I think), on another planet. A caste system determines how and where people live. Chel are the underclass. They live off of the scraps left by the other castes, are viewed as not having souls, and do dangerous and/or dirty jobs that often land them an early grave. Pel are the laboring caste. They have it better than chel, but they don't get the luxuries that the Elai do. They work hard and are only ever treated by regular doctors. Elai are the highest caste. They are treated by vasai. Vasai are sort of outside the caste system. Vasai are intersex (have both male and female genitalia) and can use their souls to heal others, but only if those others have souls. It is popularly believed that, even if a vasai and a chel were to meet each other, the vasai would be unable to heal the chel, because chel don't have souls.

Amaranth is a vasai who wants, for once, to be able to heal people who actually need healing. He (Amaranth prefers male pronouns) is convinced that the Elai he treats only really come see him because they like having sex with vasai - it's believed that vasai can't heal without sexual contact. Amaranth's dissatisfaction with his life prompts him to wander outside of the mostly Elai area, where he brushes against a soul in agony. Searching for this person who actually needs his help, Amaranth finds Ash, a chel. Ash, recently raped and badly beaten, would not have survived without help. Amaranth takes him home and begins to heal him, proving that the Elai have lied about chel not having souls, and about vasai needing sexual contact in order to heal. Amaranth healed Ash through touch alone, and he felt his soul.

Initially, Ash is suspicious of Amaranth's motives for helping him, but he gradually realizes how lonely Amaranth is. Amaranth and Ash become closer, but Amaranth can't keep Ash a secret forever. Amaranth's beliefs have already put him at odds with other vasai. If others discover that he has fallen in love with a chel, his reputation may be damaged beyond repair.

Review:

This book sat in my wishlist for months because 1) it's kind of expensive and 2) I had some feelings of trepidation over how the author would handle the intersexed characters. In the end, I'm glad I bought and read it.

I was surprised at how often Amaranth & Ash made me think of Ariel Tachna's The Inventor's Companion. I wouldn't have guessed that the two books had very many similarities, but both star a character who is basically viewed as a high class whore by others (Lucio is a courtesan, Amaranth heals through sex, dealing primarily with patients who he feels aren't in need of healing and just want the sex) and both feature a caste system and a cross-caste romance. As far as how the romance was handled, I found I enjoyed Amaranth & Ash more.

The romance between Amaranth and Ash was very sweet. This book was published by Loose Id, so of course the sex scenes were explicit, but Amaranth and Ash didn't fall into bed right away. Ash was still recovering from a brutal gang rape (which was fade-to-black – no worries about reading an explicitly described rape scene), so, initially, all Amaranth worried about was healing him and convincing Ash to trust him. Even after he started to feel attracted to him, he was hesitant about acting on his attraction. Amaranth and Ash's relationship began more as one of mutual comfort rather than sex – Ash allowed Amaranth to sleep with him and learned to trust that Amaranth wouldn't do anything that made him uncomfortable, while Amaranth finally had someone around to help relieve his loneliness. The one thing I can think of that might make some people uncomfortable about Amaranth and Ash's developing relationship is that it occurs while Amaranth is acting as Ash's healer – even though I thought their relationship was sweet, I couldn't help but think of the Florence Nightingale effect.

The caste system was another area where I thought this book was well done. I particularly liked finding out more about how things worked in Chelon (the area where chel live), and I found the idea of soul sellers fascinating. The vasai, too, were interesting. They weren't all perfect little angels – although they were healers, there were still jerks among them. Also, although some characters put them on a pedestal, not everyone did. I had wondered what would happen after the lower castes found out there was a vasai among them. Some people reacted almost worshipfully, but in some cases things did turn darker.

Speaking of the vasai, I liked how Freely handled them as well. The vasai weren't just an opportunity for Freely to write sex involving different combinations of male and female genitalia without having to incorporate menages. I liked finding out more details about vasai life, and I was fascinated by the idea of hidden vasai. In an author's note, Freely writes about the thought that went into pronouns and, now that I've finished the book, I have to say that I'm relieved that Freely chose to use gender neutral pronouns for only one of the vasai – otherwise, the book would have been a slog to get through, since my brain couldn't see to adjust to seeing “sie” and “hir.”

Those of you who hate the soulmate trope may dislike one of the minor romantic relationships that pops up later in the book. [SLIGHT SPOILER!] Grail, Amaranth's friend, ends up in a soulmate-style relationship with one of those hidden vasai I mentioned. It was definitely an insta-love situation, and it made me wonder if Amaranth and Ash would be explicitly identified as soulmates as well (I don't think they were).

Although I did really like this book overall, that's not to say that it didn't have its weak points. The first one I noticed was that characters voices weren't as clearly defined as I would have liked. At first, I thought Amaranth spoke in a more refined way than Ash, which, considering their castes, made sense. Then Amaranth had a scene in which he started cussing, and he once berated himself by calling himself a “perv.” It didn't seem to fit in with his usual speech patterns. I would have preferred for characters' voices to be more consistent.

Some of the things I disliked about this book were tied in with things I liked about it. For instance, while I was happy that Freely did not write about rape in detail, her vagueness when it came to darker moments in the story sometimes made it difficult to figure out what, exactly, happened. There is a scene later in the book where Amaranth is being forced to heal others. Although it's stated that most of the people just touch Amaranth, I had a difficult time figuring out whether one of the characters had gone further and actually raped him.

Also, while I appreciated that the dream scenes allowed for Amaranth and Ash to continue to have scenes together even after they were separated, I'm one of those readers who tends to prefer fewer sex scenes in my romance novels, and those dream scenes were nothing but sex. It's a personal preference, but those scenes got to be a bit much for me.

I mentioned earlier that some aspects of the world-building could have used some work. It wasn't always clear to me what people did or did not know about vasai. Amaranth had to explain to Ash that vasai are technically neither male nor female and that some choose preferred gendered pronouns while others wish to be referred to using gender neutral pronouns. You'd think this would mean that other chel would be as clueless about vasai as Ash, and yet, later in the book, not one chel stumbled over the gender neutral pronouns and everyone seemed to know which were the proper pronouns to use. The pel that Amaranth encountered were as clueless as Ash had been, sometimes referring to him as “it.”

Then there was the feeling I had, that this book was similar to a video game where the environment seems to be rich and well-defined, until you bump up against the invisible edges of the map and see that there's nothing out there. I found myself wondering about things like whether Amaranth and Ash's entire world was just one big city and whether there was some kind of purpose to character names (chel seemed to have earthy names, like Ash and Soot, pel had task names, like Push and Pull, Elai got more familiar names, like Darien and Elissa, and vasai got...I'm not sure - “Amaranth” and “Grail” both have meanings, but I don't think “Evanscar” does). One of the reasons why I hated that the book ended with a “four years” later epilogue was because I felt a sequel could have opened up the world a little more.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, although I'm not sure it's one I'll ever reread. Amaranth and Ash's relationship was sweet, but there was some quality missing from the book that kept me from really connecting with it. That said, I plan on reading more of Freely's works and would jump on a sequel to Amaranth & Ash if she ever wrote one.

Other Comments:

For as much as Loose Id charges for their e-books, they should edit them more carefully. I caught one verb tense error and one misplaced comma. There may have been other editing errors I didn't catch.

Read-alikes:
  • The Inventor's Companion (e-book) by Ariel Tachna - If you'd like something else featuring a caste system and cross-caste romance, you might want to try this. In this m/m steampunk romance, one of the main characters is from the merchant caste, while the other is from the pleasure caste. I've written about this book.
  • After School Nightmare (manga) by Setona Mizushiro - Another story starring a character that is both male and female. Be warned, this is not a romance, although several of the characters end up in relationships with each other. Most of the characters in this book are emotionally damaged in some way, and the various relationships tend to be at least somewhat unhealthy. I have written about all the volumes in this series, although, be warned, my posts have lots of spoilers.
  • The Black Gryphon (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Amaranth reminded me a lot of Amberdrake, a character in this book. He's also a healer and, although sex may sometimes be part of the service he gives his clients, it is not, as some clients assume, always part of what he does. This is the first book in a fantasy trilogy, and the trilogy is part of a larger series set in the same world and spanning generations.
  • Future Histories: Transgendered Sci-Fi Erotica (anthology, e-short stories) by Giselle Renarde - I haven't read this, but it sounds like it might work for those who'd like something else where more than just male and female genders come up. Be warned, it's only 16,400 words long, which means that the three short stories it contains are very short.

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