Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Close Contact by Katherine Allred

Echo Adams is a GEP, or 'Genetically Engineered Person", which means that her genetics were assembled in a lab as opposed to formed normally at conception. Echo has been trained to be a diplomat, hosting bigwigs at fancy parties. However, when they became aware that she was a GEP of Dr. Simon Gertz, a rogue geneticist who had designed all his GEPs to be "special", often outside the limits of what was thought of as human potential, her bosses quickly shunted her over to the Bureau for Alien Affairs.

The BAA wanted Echo as an agent, and discovered that she was needed for a very special project. An Alien Intelligence who lives inside of quartz crystals known as the Limantti lost a hived-off daughter crystal called the Sumantti, which was lost somewhere in the galaxy. Echo, who is trying to find a quartz crystal which will give a clue as to her mental abilities, even though they have never manifested before, keeps hearing a loud and annoying buzzing, which turns out to be a black quartz teardrop that she must have as soon as she sees it. Because of her attraction to the crystal, it seems she is the one who is fated to carry out the mission to find the Sumantti.

Echo is assigned a ship with an A.I. named Lilith, who she finds stuffy and annoying, and is adopted by a little dragon lizard who tags along with her everywhere she goes- something Echo also finds annoying, but she adapts. Figuring that her psychic powers, whatever they are, will lead her to the Sumantti, she scrutinizes the area where it disappeared, and settles on the planet of Madrea as the place where she will go to look for the Sumantti.

But there's a problem- Madrea is full of Technophobes who want nothing to do with the Federation or her people or technology. So they have cut themselves off from the Federation, making it illegal to even land on the planet. Echo is less than impressed with the clothing of the natives, except for those of a nomadic people named the Bashalde. Echo decides to disguise herself as one while she is on Madrea and finds that there is another Federation spy on the planet who is disguised as the owner of a bar. She will be "working" for him when she is on the planet.

Echo is also intrigued by a video of the Commander of the King's Army, Reynard Du'Marr, who Echo finds herself wanting to eat up- after she licks him all over. But needless to say, Lilith warns her away from even getting near Reynard, and Echo, despite agreeing with Lilith (under protest), still can't manage to put him out of her mind.

When she's dropped on Madrea, she must hike a whole day in her clothes to the city, and thanks to a misunderstanding and a scuffle with the city guards, she must take shelter in an inn room, where Reynard just happens to be taking a bath, giving her quite a splendid eyeful. Knowing she can't trust him to not turn her in if she tells the truth, Echo blurts out her carefully prepared cover story, which he somewhat accepts, but he decides to keep an eye on her even after her protector (the other agent) shows up to escort her back to the Inn. On the way, he says he hopes to see her dance at the Inn, along with the other performers, and she agrees.

Afterwards, she settles into her job as a server, decrying the inefficiency of the tavern, which she manages to vastly improve on, not only reorganizing the kitchen so that the cook isn't run off her feet, but also the liquor storage. But something strange is going on on-planet. Even though the planet is supposed to be off-limits to the Federation, the King appears to be trading with Federation smugglers, and he, or someone in the Palace is dealing in young girls. As Echo's psychic powers start to unlock, she realizes that the King's brother is just as twisted in mind as he is in the body, and that someone is using those girls to try to unlock the power of the Sumantti- which can only be wielded by a woman. However, the woman must be specially prepared, otherwise they die horribly, and needless to say, none of the girls has this preparation.

And Echo, frankly, doesn't want anyone to die. But to accomplish her mission, she is going to have to trust Reynard Du'Marr, and get him to trust her. But can they keep their hands off each other long enough to have an honest conversation? And can she deal with going away and never seeing him again after the mission is over? Can a self-proclaimed "party girl" ever be the sort of person suited to going undercover and doing spy-type stuff for the Federation? And if not, what kind of job *is* she suited for?

This book is a sequel, but you don't need to have read the first book in order to enjoy it. This book is a romance, but based on the cover, you don't need to be forgiven for thinking it's Sci-Fi. In fact, that's what I thought when I picked it up. But most of the book really focusses on the relationships between Echo and the other characters, especially Reynard, and not as much on the alien intelligence of the Sumantti or what is going on with it.

Make no mistake, it's in there, in small chunks, but much of the story takes a backseat to the romance and feelings of the two main characters. For a romance novel, you would certainly expect this. And if I had gotten it from the romance section in the bookstore, I'd be expecting the Romance. Instead, I picked this up from the library and was rather floored to be expecting Science Fictiony type shenanigans, and getting Romancy Shenanigans instead. It was rather jarring, but being a fan of romances as well, I quickly adapted.

This is a solid Romance novel and does the whole romantic tension between the protagonists very well. I liked Echo and her attitude, but I realize that not everyone is going to view her quite so charitably. Her comic chagrin about finding out her true talents could easily be taken to be whining, and she hardly seems to take things seriously. So her personality is one that, if you know some angsting by the heroine annoys you, you may not want to read this book. On the other hand, if her borderline whining is something you can take, you can't go wrong reading this novel, which is fun and witty at times. Recommended.

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