Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pushing The Hero Vulnerability Envelope: Pippa Jay's KEIR

Even though I read science fiction romance books regularly, I find that some reading experiences need to simmer gently for a time before I can officially declare them properly processed. Such was the case with Pippa Jay’s KEIR (Lyrical Press), which I read this past summer.

The least you need to know (non spoiler version): Quin, a human with extraordinary abilities, is Doctor Who-like in her ability to travel across space and time. In this story, sentient life exists on a number of planets in the Milky Way, regulated by the Galactic Commission. Planets that haven’t achieved space flight are left alone à la the Prime Directive. Quin, originally from Earth, has the ability to travel to various worlds. She’s on a mission to find someone and during her travels rescues the titular Keir.

What jumped out at me about this story was the hero dynamic. Without going into spoilers, Keir struck me as a tortured man dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among other challenges. Once Quin rescues him, he’s in recovery mode. Quin assumes the leadership role in their adventures while Keir seeks answers about what he is. So right there you’ve got mucho subversion happening, especially since Keir is in such a vulnerable state.

That vulnerability, to me, is at such extreme odds with how romance and SF heroes are usually envisioned and marketed (notwithstanding KEIR’s cover, which fully embraces the man titty). Yet KEIR's hero is one type that can challenge readers' expectations about the hero/heroine dynamic in an interesting way.

Quin is a kick-ass heroine. Part of me wondered if the dynamic between Quin and Keir is simply role-reversal. Meaning, would the story stay the same if all one did was switch genders? I think their relationship does skirt along those lines, but even so I’m not averse to it.

But what is it about Keir being male that distinguishes his vulnerability? For one thing, the story communicates that just because he’s male doesn’t mean he has to turn all Alpha/kick-ass. He’s trying to recover from past trauma and that’s okay. In fact, Quin is the one who drives the plot forward. I mean, Keir does stuff, of course, but at a certain point I had to adjust my expectations for this guy. I couldn’t expect him to behave in ways he wasn’t ready for. And until he can start decoding the secrets of his past, he’s highly dependent on Quin to keep him safe.

The reason I make a point of all that is because it is such a challenge for books with this type of character and romance dynamic to compete against all those billionaire Alpha heroes and whatnot. I worry that readers won’t take a chance on stories like this because of the more prevalent hero types who dominate. When you start stacking up the odds it gets rather depressing. Here’s an excerpt from an Amazon review that addresses this very issue:

Keir's character spent a good portion of the beginning of the book in angst and feeling low and dying and depressed, not that that's bad per say but I'm used to of the strong, alpha male, confident heroes so reading Keir was a bit of a struggle for me.

I agree that Keir will be a learning curve for some readers. That said, he can serve as a prompt for readers to reflect on and perhaps even question why we are “used” to certain types of heroes.

And that’s why you won't find a bigger fan than me for trying something new in sci-fi romance. I salute the author and publisher Lyrical Press for taking a risk with KEIR.

Joyfully yours,