For a novel set so far in the future, the relationship between Tarver and Lilac in These Broken Stars (Disney-Hyperion) is pure, old-movie classic, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. But when the collaborative novel by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner strives to go beyond the romance storyline, it falters.
Kaufman and Spooner have drawn a futuristic world, starting on the Icarus, a massive luxury spaceliner owned by LaRoux Industries, the richest company and family in the galaxy. When the Icarus falls from hyperspace, forcing its thousands of passengers to evacuate into escape pods, it's hard not to draw comparisons to Titanic. And with a Greek reference like Icarus as a name, its downfall was foretold from the beginning. But then the two main characters are stranded on a remote planet, the novel becomes more reminiscent of Lost. Kaufman and Spooner's book is primarily a romance novel, but it also draws a mysterious, remote land with paranormal and science-fiction elements that at times work and at times feel jarring and out of place.
The story centers on Lilac LaRoux, the only daughter of the richest man in the galaxy, and Major Tarver Merendsen, a lower-class military man who has earned a place at the rich-person table for his recent honors in service. They meet at an upscale party gathering and flirt in a manner straight out of the classic, black-and-white romances, with banter and innuendo. However, Lilac pushes Tarver away, hinting that her father would harm Tarver if he was aware of their flirtation. When the Icarus inevitably crashes, Lilac and Tarver are the sole survivors on an uncivilized land, and they must trek across the planet searching for a means of rescue. And as romance novels go, they fall in love.
On the course of their journey, Lilac starts to hear whispers, which turn into visions, and these visions become a major effect on if and how the two can make it home. The planet itself becomes a character; the land itself seems out of the ordinary.
"None of the plants are quite familiar, but none of them are completely unknown—just a little different, a twist on what I'm used to," Tarver thinks. Lilac even has an almost direct famous Lost quote when she remarks, "What is this place?"
The novel is framed by italicized passages in which Tarver is being debriefed — or interrogated — by an unknown speaker about his experiences on this planet. After a few passages, it becomes clear that he's lying, which adds to the novel's ominous tone. Each chapter switches off from Lilac's or Tarver's perspective.
The strongest element of Kaufman and Spooner's novel is the female protagonist they have drawn. It would have been simple to create the richest daughter in the galaxy as spoiled, ignorant, and rude. However, Lilac is fully composed as a character. She fancies her dresses and her shoes, but she's also a skilled engineer and tough as nails. And when it comes to romance, she was the first to act on her feelings for Tarver. When their escape pod fails to detach from the Icarus, it's Lilac that reworks the wires and frees them to safety.
"Without a doubt, Lilac LaRoux saved our lives," Tarver says. "That's a little hard to swallow."
And when she's moving more slowly than usual on their march across the planet, he notices how badly her feet are torn up — but she never complained or asked for help.
"Lilac LaRoux has handled a forced march with more determination than some of the recruits I've taken out in the last couple of years, even if she seems to be doing it out of spite more than anything else," Tarver says.
These Broken Stars will be part of a series of related stories about the galaxy, but have new main characters. Unfortunately, because if I had to choose between Lilac and the galaxy for more books, I would have stuck with Lilac.
While Lilac is a compelling character and the romance elements work, the fact that this novel was written by two people shows. There seems to be a tug of war on what These Broken Stars wants to be. The first half was very readable, as Lilac and Tarver explore the strange planet and get to know each other, but the second half dragged as it spent too long on clunky sci-fi that pulled away from how affecting the relationship and characters were. Kaufman and Spooner clearly wanted their science fiction elements to be 'realistic' in their scientific grounding, but the exposition in around these elements is distracting, and it ultimately pulls the novel down.
Images: Disney-Hyperion; it was not all misery/Tumblr