|I procrastinated writing this review for more than a week because I was reluctant to admit how disappointed I was by The Charmed Sphere, Catherine Asaro’s first novel for Harlequin’s Luna line. I expected a creative and thought-provoking story from the author of the acclaimed Skolian Empire Saga and other provocative science fiction novels, but I found instead something so simplistic and bland that I had to force myself to keep turning the pages. I couldn’t help wondering if Harlequin told Asaro that she had to dumb down her voice for romance readers. I’ll admit that I’ve had problems following the physics behind some of Asaro’s previous plots, but she didn’t need to write this one at the level that a ten year old could easily comprehend.
The novel takes place in the kingdom of Aronsdale, where shape mages are valued individuals who use shapes to cast spells. The more sides a given shape has, the better it concentrates the mage’s power, but only if the mage is strong enough to utilize it. Mages are also known by their colors – red mages create light, green mages sense emotions and the rare blue mages can heal injuries. Mage Mistress Della No-Cozen is traveling through Aronsdale looking for new mages when she finds Chime Headwind, the daughter of an orchard farmer. Insecure and reluctant to leave her family, Chime initially resists her destiny, especially when she learns that if she is the most powerful new mage in the land, she must marry the heir to the throne, Prince Muller Dawnfield.
Meanwhile, the well-dressed but less than regal Muller has his own doubts. The reigning King Daron’s son, daughter-in-law and grandson were all killed 13 years ago, and since then Muller has been the designated heir, but he’s not sure he’s fit to rule the kingdom. Unbeknownst to anyone, Muller is also a mage, but he can only use imperfect shapes to cast spells that always come out wrong. Muller fears his defective powers could lead to Aronsdale’s downfall, especially with neighboring Harsdown threatening war.
When Chime and Muller meet, their initial doubts eventually change to a strong attraction, but then fate throws a monkey wrench in their relationship. Della finds another mage, Iris Larkspur, and brings her to Castle Suncroft to study with Chime. While Chime has problems remembering the details of the spells Della teaches, she has natural power that allows her to easily sense others’ emotions. Iris’ innate abilities seem blocked, but she learns spells more quickly than Chime. If Iris proves to be the stronger mage, she will become Muller’s wife, despite the fact that Muller and Chime are now deeply in love. While the lovers try to figure a way out of this mess, the appearance of a surprising fourth player throws the diplomatic situation into chaos. As the mages and advisors of Aronsdale struggle to clarify the line of succession, they leave themselves vulnerable to the plotting of a greedy king and an ambitious traitor.
The Charmed Sphere disappoints on many levels. Asaro is a skilled world-builder who has proven herself capable of creating fascinating new kingdoms, creatures and settings, most recently in the Irresistible Forces novella, “Stained-Glass Heart.” None of those talents are evident here. Aronsdale is a standard fairy-tale kingdom without any distinguishing characteristics, landscapes or wildlife. I almost expected the characters to bump into Snow White or Sleeping Beauty; it felt like Asaro had rented out a Disney animated movie set.
The novel’s main romance plot is superficial and unsatisfying. Chime and Muller’s first encounter is filled with stereotypical Big Misunderstandings – each pretends to be someone they’re not – and once the truth comes out, the couple quickly fall into silly romance clichés. Chime repeatedly calls Muller an “incorrigible rogue,” while Muller stares love-struck at Chime’s blonde beauty. Iris Larkspur has a more interesting romance, but the bulk of her story has already been told in the Luna anthology that introduced the line, Charmed Destinies. In fact, readers familiar with Charmed Destinies will find themselves with a strange sense of deja vu, because parts of Charmed Sphere repeat the earlier short story from a slightly different perspective. Loose ends in Iris’ love story that were left hanging at the end of Charmed Destinies are glossed over in this book in favor of focusing on the foppish Muller and dreamy but dim Chime.
The novel’s villains are cartoon characters with little depth, and the passages told from their points of view are dull and predictable. The novel’s pace finally picks up in the last 150 pages when the inevitable war between Aronsdale and Harsdown erupts, and the final climactic scenes are suspenseful, but they can’t make up for the rest of the book’s weaknesses.
I’m giving the novel more than one heart because it does have some redeeming qualities. There’s a germ of a good idea in the sphere-mage concept. While the main characters are not well-developed, I felt some compassion for their struggles to overcome their doubts and insecurities. There’s also an interesting bond between Chime and the man who becomes Iris’ lover, proving that male/female interactions can be engaging even when they’re not based on sexual attraction.
But it’s hard to believe that this is the same author who wrote such tantalizing novels as The Phoenix Code, Primary Inversion and The Quantum Rose. The last few pages of The Charmed Sphere leave open the possibility of a sequel, but I’d rather see Ms. Asaro return her attentions to the much more notable Skolian Saga instead.