The Ophelia Prophecy
by Sharon Lynn Fisher
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00EGJ3RBK
Date: 01 April 2014
Links: Author's Website / Read an excerpt / Show Official Info /
When Asha leaves the safety of her position digging through the computer archives of the last fully human city on Earth to go into the unknown of the world conquered by the gene-spliced human-insect hybrids that nearly wiped mankind out twenty-five years before, she has little idea of what she's in for. She certainly doesn't imagine that she's about to be scooped up by a prince, even one that's genetically part praying manits, or that the fate of humanity will come down to what she decides. She wouldn't know any of that even if she hadn't lost the chunk of her memory that would tell her how she wound up drenched and standing in a lake looking at a naked man stirring on the shore.
Only, it turns out that he's not a man, but a manti, a member of the most successful of the human genetic experiments gone awry, and the race that nearly wiped out the entire human race. Asha's city, Sanctuary, is all that's left as far as she knows, and its borders are continually patrolled by manti warships. Not that he's just a manti either, but heir to their ruler. Though gene-spliced the differences aren't obvious, and at first Asha thinks he's human like her, until he calls his craft down out of the sky and forces her into it. Like Asha, Prince Pax is suffering some confusion, though in his case the probable cause is the contusion on his forehead. When he awoke on the shore of the lake he was emerging from a carapace that had formed around him to protect him from some threat, only he doesn't remember what it was. It seems likely that it had something to do with the girl, so he decides to hightail it somewhere where he can sort things out before returning to the manti capital, and his father, like he's supposed to.
On board the Banshee, Pax's sentient scoutship, is Pax's sister Iris, and if Pax could pass for human, with the exception of his green eyes, his sister's dragonfly like wings rule that out for her. The two siblings have a tendency to butt heads, which shows up right away when Pax wants to take Asha away for questioning and Iris votes to return home. The complication that Pax's immediate and autonomic reaction to Asha was to feel his body "tuning" to hers, which isn't quite the same thing as love at first sight, since you can fall out of love, and the end of this process is much more like being bonded for life.
This being a romance novel, even if it's about bug gene carrying conquerors and the humans that abhor them, it's not surprising that Asha felt something in that initial contact too, though she spends the rest of the book coming to grips with it.
Among the biological tweaks to Pax's system is a powerful urge to mate with the person his body has targeted, and it takes all of his princely will to resist. Unlike his father, or most manti, Pax believes that humans deserve to survive and ultimately to be free and equal to the manti. Taking advantage of a prisoner runs counter to that belief, but not trusting his own will he orders the ship to protect Asha, even from himself, an order which has unexpected consequences, setting up a conflict in the ship's AI that forces it into self-awareness, a state discouraged in manti craft.
Pax and the gang wind up in the British Isles, pretty much off the grid, so he can sort things out, but find a renegade group of humans, and worse for him, one that's been lying in wait for a manit ship. Soon, Pax and Iris are captured and Asha has been taken under the wing of Beck, the roughhewn leader of the small resistance, who offers her his protection, with the clear suggestion of something more if she wants, or possibly even if she doesn't. Still, Asha's glad to be back among humans, and is mostly able to ignore her feelings for Pax, who may have taken her captive, but has treated her with respect that makes him look more like her definition of human than the grubby freedom fighters.
Though the author throws a few red-herrings at us, they're all underhand pitches, as we know that Asha and Pax are going to wind up together in the end. Asha does manage to keep making a mess of things for Pax along the way though, as she vacillates between her sense of duty to humanity and the feelings she won't quite acknowledge for him. And then there's her mission, the one that she had herself hypnotized to forget she was on so she could act convincingly naïve. Fortunately for her, Pax grows more and more tuned to the fiery girl, despite his assurances to his sister that he's still rational about the whole affair, so he keeps going after her, no matter how complicated or dangerous she makes it.
Ultimately Asha becomes the fulcrum on which the future of humanity rests. Though there is a movement with ideals like Pax's, at its head is the woman Pax's father rejected, and who once tried to blackmail Pax. It's complicated, and it's up to Asha to find a path through it all to keep the remaining humans from being wiped out as well as to come to terms with her feelings for Pax.
The approach avoidance conflict that fuels the plot as Asha leans one way and then the other isn't as convincing as the author would no doubt like it to be. Yes, she's a spunky heroine, but her ability to spend so much of the book in denial, rather than the accepting her feelings and taking a stand critically undermines her character's appeal. If Pax wasn't at the mercy of his genes it would certainly give him pause, but he's a goner from the start.
As a romance, I found this also unsatisfying, largely for the same reasons. Every time Asha comes close to Pax she more or less swoons, but manages to pull away, or he gets distracted by the next crisis so that they dance around each other until they ultimately collide. When they do finally get over themselves, the author gives us a handful of manit-human sex scenes as reward for staying the course. They're soft-core, and there's not really much other-worldly about them, but if it's the payoff you were looking for, it's there.
Personally, I’d have rather The Ophelia Phrophecy was setup as an Arabian Nights fantasy, which is what I think you'd have if you peeled off the thin skin of sf and biotech laid over the characters. Either that or for the science to have some real impact on the characters, which basically fall into a Romeo and Juliet dilemma as kids from warring groups try to figure out what to do about their attraction for each other. Pax is much too human, and even then, much too idealized, for his character to offer any surprises for the story. If you want a good example of a cross species romance, I'd recommend David Brin's Uplift War, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent 2312, though you’ll have to dream up your own sex scenes.
I'm actually fond of romance, given decent characters and situations, but Pax and Asha don't offer a compelling enough story to engage me and the science fictional elements just muddy the waters. You sense that the marketers know this as well, considering that the book's cover gives away none of its SF genome and the title has little to do with the story. I can't help but wonder if it would have done better to really get into alien sex angle and just go for the full manti.