I bought this book on a whim almost a year ago. There was some kind of Samhain sale, I wanted to beef up my sci-fi e-book collection, and this sounded like quirky fun.
Ever since her divorce, Gaia has been focused on one thing and one thing only: making her space station snack bar a success. Gaia, her hamster, and Happy Snak are managing to get by, until the alien Kenjan dies on the floor of Happy Snak one morning. The human portion of the A-Ki space station exists only as long as the Kishocha want it there, and Kenjan was the only Kishocha at all interested in interacting with humans. Kenjan's death puts the space station's human population at serious risk. Luckily, Kenjan chose Gaia as its guardian before it died, meaning that Gaia is now the single most important human on the A-Ki space station. Unfortunately for Gaia, this means that she has to live in a snack bar/shrine for the rest of her life, feeding and protecting Kenjan's ghost so that the rest of the humans on the space station can continue to live.
I wasn't sure, going in, what sort of story this was. A sci-fi murder mystery? Sci-fi romance? What it mostly turned out to be was a “first contact” story. Despite their best efforts, very few humans had managed to get the Kishocha to say much about themselves prior to Kenjan dying on Happy Snak's floor. When she was made the protector of Kenjan's ghost, Gaia became humanity's single best source of information on the Kishocha.
Some of Gaia's interactions with the Kishocha were ridiculous and hilarious. Gaia, very much a capitalist, considered the Kishocha a vast untapped market for her snack bar, but what do you do with an alien race that has no concept of money? In Gaia's case, you figure out what could be used as money instead, and then auction that stuff off to scientists for as much as possible. While Coke and Pepsi tasted like poison to the Kishocha, Orange dye number 17 quickly became their most favorite drink. Wave Walker, Kenjan's former slave and therefore Gaia's newest employee, worked hard at coming up with a menu that would satisfy Kishocha tastes. Which mostly meant live, stunned seafood.
I loved Wave. It (all the aliens were hermaphrodites) was so earnest and adorable. I loved how it gradually became more accustomed to and comfortable with the freedoms Gaia introduced it to. I don't think Gaia always realized what she was doing, but the end result was a stronger, braver Wave, who was more willing to stand up for itself and its loved ones.
Wave was also a bit of a trap, one that both Gaia and I fell into. Wave was so adorable that it was easy to forget that it was actually an adult member of a not always very friendly alien race. One minute I'd be laughing as Wave and Gaia got drunk or talked about Kishocha vs. human reproduction, and the next I'd be gasping as someone got beheaded.
Although I was a little horrified at how unconcerned Gaia seemed to be about the possibility that she might accidentally poison one of the Kishocha (I mean, how was she to know that Orange number 17 wasn't a deadly, slow-acting poison to them?), I absolutely loved the alien culture aspects of this book. The Kishocha had different castes, living technology (which was part of the caste system), and very different ideas about such concepts as death and free will. Their anatomy and physiology was different - for example, their genital area ("pit") was located in the base of their throats. There was some on-page alien sex, and it reminded me a bit of a mauling.
Every time Gaia and I thought we finally knew everything we needed to know about the Kishocha, we learned we were wrong. It was great. Well, for me anyway. For Gaia, learning new things about the Kishocha often meant pain, terror, crying, and phone calls to Fitzpatrick, the A-Ki space station ambassador's special assistant.
There were a couple things I didn't like about this book. One, I couldn't understand why hardly anyone was interested in how and why Kenjan died. I suppose Fitzpatrick didn't really care, as long as humans got to stay on the space station, but I'd have expected Gaia to wonder about Kenjan's death more than she did. Two, the human characters were pretty flat. There were four of them – five, if you count Emily Blum, the ambassador, but she was barely in the book after Gaia became Kenjan's guardian.
Here is just about everything I know about the book's human characters: Cheryl and Roy were a married couple, were Peace Corps volunteers who worked at Happy Snak for lack of anything better to do, and liked to bicker a lot. Fitzpatrick was handsome and divorced. Gaia was divorced, had diving experience, owned a hamster, and had no friends. Oh, and her mother lived back on Earth.
Considering that Gaia was the book's main character, I felt like I should have gotten to know her better. I don't think she ever once mentioned the name of her ex-husband, she frequently forgot about her hamster (the only reason it survived to the end of the book was because Wave remembered to feed it for her), and she had no life outside of running Happy Snak. Becoming Kenjan's guardian should have restricted her social circle. Instead, because she'd previously had no one, it expanded it. There were hints that maybe Gaia was growing as a person throughout the book, but I don't think Kimberling was as successful with that as she was with the alien culture stuff. Although I could see it coming, I cringed a little when Gaia and Fitzpatrick ended up sleeping together (off-page). Gaia didn't seem quite ready for a social life yet (she wasn't), and I couldn't help but wonder if Fitzpatrick was sleeping with her to keep her happy and complacent in her role as the space station's single most important human.
Overall, despite my issues with the book's human characters, I really enjoyed this and am a little sad Kimberling doesn't appear to have written anything else about the Kishocha.
- Earthrise (e-book) by M.C.A. Hogarth - Another sci-fi book starring a heroine who needs to improve her social skills. This might be another good one for those who'd like more alien culture-focused sci-fi. I've written about this book.
- The Cloud Roads (e-book) by Martha Wells - Even though the Kishocha look absolutely nothing like the Raksura, for some reason they reminded me of this book. The Cloud Roads is entirely filled with non-human characters. Maybe that's why I thought of it - Happy Snak's aliens were noticeably more prominent than its humans. I've written about this book.
- Foreigner (book) by C.J. Cherryh - I haven't read this yet, but it's on my TBR. It's another "first contact" book. From the sounds of things, alien culture plays a large role, but the story's pacing may be a bit slow.