This book takes place on a planet populated by three main groups of people: the Sansoussy, the city dwellers, and the Horde. The city dwellers have a very high tech and, among the upper classes at least, often cutthroat way of life. The Sansoussy live more off the land and have a low tech way of life. They also have very advanced meditation abilities, and some of them have special abilities, like empathy, telepathy, or even precognition. The Horde are widely known to be dangerous and barbaric, killing or taking prisoner anyone they come across.
Ran-Del Jahanpur, a young Sansoussy warrior, is kidnapped by Baron Stefan Hayden and eventually learns that Stefan plans for him to marry his daughter, Francesca. Ran-Del has no intention of doing as Stefan wishes, and, although Francesca finds Ran-Del to be attractive, she'd rather not marry some random illiterate wild man. Unfortunately for the two of them, circumstances outside their control make marriage unavoidable. The question, then, is whether they can make their marriage work, despite the way it began and the great differences between their cultures. Somehow, they also have to deal with outside efforts to force the House of Hayden to join one of the cartels.
I found this book to be kind of slow-paced, but still decent. The main thing keeping me from buying the sequel, No Safe Haven, is residual anger at Ran-Del and, to a certain extent, Francesca. More on that below.
In the first third of the book, readers learn about city dweller and Sansoussy culture through the eyes of characters who know as little as they do. Although Ran-Del has been kidnapped, Stefan wants him to come to like living in the city, so he's perfectly willing to answer whatever questions Ran-Del may have. Then, when Francesca stays briefly with Ran-Del's people, she gets to ask basic questions about Sansoussy life. I appreciated that neither city dweller life nor Sansoussy life was depicted as wholly “good” or “bad,” although it seemed like the book paid more attention to the nitty gritty details of Sansoussy life than it did city dweller life.
While I liked Ran-Del and Francesca's question-and-answer sessions at first, I eventually got to the point where I wished Buxton had incorporated information about the different cultures into the story more smoothly. I was happy when the story moved on to its next big phase, Ran-Del and Francesca's marriage. Unfortunately, that part became increasingly frustrating and stressful for me, to the point that I checked whether there was a sequel just so I could find out whether Ran-Del and Francesca were still married by the end of the book without actually looking at the last few pages.
When I first started reading the book, I felt more sympathy for Ran-Del than any of the other characters. I gradually grew to like Francesca, though. She did what she could to make it easier for Ran-Del to get back to his people, and I loved that, when things started to get a little steamy between her and Ran-Del, she stopped things enough to give Ran-Del an opportunity to decide whether he really wanted to go further (Sansoussy people only have sex after marriage, so Francesca was more sexually experienced than Ran-Del). I couldn't imagine Francesca and Ran-Del getting married and actually being happy together, but I did come to like and sympathize with them both.
After they made their marriage 100% binding for both their cultures, things changed, and I began to get more and more frustrated and annoyed with Ran-Del and Francesca, but mostly with Ran-Del (I can't reveal my reasons for getting upset with Francesca without including a spoiler, so I'm just not going to go into that bit). Ran-Del had made such a big deal about Sansoussy marriages, and how Francesca needed to realize that she couldn't sleep with other men, and how he of course would never even think of sleeping with any woman but her. And then he proceeded to spend a lot of time with Janis, a woman who he knew was interested in him and didn't care that he was married. He got angry when Francesca felt jealous, conveniently forgetting that, unlike him, Francesca couldn't read his emotions and know for a fact that he wasn't cheating on her.
There were a few times I came very close to hating Ran-Del for the way he handled the situation between himself, Janis, and Francesca. I wasn't sure what sort of ending the book was moving towards – since this was a science fiction novel, and not romance, a happy ending wasn't guaranteed. Although the description of the sequel told me that Ran-Del and Francesca would still be married by the end of the book, I couldn't imagine how Buxton would make me believe in the longevity of their relationship. I didn't really want them to stay together, but I didn't know how Francesca would deal with the threats against the House of Hayden without the aid of Ran-Del's special abilities.
Surprisingly, Buxton did manage to convince me that Ran-Del and Francesca's marriage could work. I wish the deciding moment hadn't come so late in the book, and I wish I could believe that Ran-Del and Francesca would handle future bumps in their relationship better. If I do get the sequel, it will be some time from now, because the idea of reading more about the two of them still stresses me out a little. I loved the book's exploration of two very different cultures, and I liked both Francesca and Ran-Del as individuals, but as a couple they were kind of nerve-wracking. I might take a look at some of the other books Buxton has written, instead.
- A Bride's Story (manga) by Kaoru Mori - A rich exploration of a culture, via a marriage. This is not science fiction, or even fantasy, and it's really slow-paced, so it's not for everyone. So far, I've only written about the first volume.
- Turning Point (book) by Lisanne Norman - Sorry, this is the only science fiction novel I was able to think of for this list. I eventually had to quit reading this series because it started to go places I didn't want to go, but I remember enjoying the first book or two. This first book stars Carrie, a human, and Kusac, a cat-like alien. They form a telepathic bond which develops into a romance. Something about Ran-Del and Francesca's relationship reminded me of Carrie and Kusac, who also have to work out the boundaries of their relationship.
- Winds of Fate (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This is the first book in a trilogy within Lackey's long-running Heralds of Valdemar series. This might not be the best place to start the series, but I added it to this list because something about the setup (Elspeth, future queen of Valdemar, visits the Hawkbrothers in order to learn magic and ends up falling in love with Darkwind, one of the Hawkbrothers) seemed like a good fit. Those who liked the Sansoussy might find the Hawkbrothers interesting.
- Nation (book) by Terry Pratchett - Another book featuring two people from different cultures. When Daphne's ship is wrecked, she's left stranded on an island. Mau, part of the Nation that lived on that island, must figure out how to survive and go on after the same wave that wrecked Daphne's ship kills everyone he has ever known. I don't remember if it had any romance in it, but those who liked some of the soul-searching Ran-Del was forced to do may enjoy it anyway. I have written about this book.