The Challenge by Susan Kearney
(Tor, $6.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-765-34891-8
**
Another promising story shot down by an ass masquerading as a hero.

Tessa Camen is a Secret Service Agent charged with protecting the first female President of the United States. Despite a rough and lonely childhood spent in multiple foster homes, Tessa has become a self-reliant, self-sufficient adult with an excellent job and service record. And she doesn’t hesitate when the President is threatened. Tessa does what she is trained to do – she throws herself in front of an assassin’s bullet.

However instead of ending up dead, Tessa ends up several hundred years in the future. She’s on a spaceship with a hunky alien named Kahn who’s telling her she has been selected by Earth to compete in The Challenge. If she passes this mysterious test, Earth will be invited to join an intergalactic federation. This is vital since Earth needs the technology that the Federation can provide in order to clean up its highly polluted environment.

Kahn is shocked to realize that Earth has selected a woman for the competition. He’s totally ill-equipped to train her and flummoxed by her 21st century opinions. Silly notions like women are equal to men and can voice their own opinions, work outside the home, and fight in combat. Tessa may be living in the future now, but her trainer and love interest is stuck in Prehistoric times.

The positive in this story has got to be Tessa, who is actually a really kick-ass babe. She’s tough, trained extensively in martial arts, and used to men underestimating her abilities. While she was once in love, they never consummated their relationship and he was killed in the line of duty. Part of the reason Tessa was chosen for The Challenge is because she’s a virgin. Kahn decides to awaken her latent psi abilities by putting her in a suit that sexually frustrates her. Tessa is obviously not happy with this plan, and begs instead for Kahn to train her like a man – you know, crazy ideas like hand-to-hand combat.

Instead Kahn spends the whole blessed book acting like a Neanderthal. After a while I forgot Tessa had a name because he kept referring to her as “Woman.” How’s that for romance? Then he proceeds to berate her over the entire course of the story because women from his planet obey their men, do as they are told, and don’t initiate sex. Men call the shots and that’s the way Kahn likes it. This leaves Tessa at a disadvantage since our poor girl has a mind of her own.

For her part Tessa puts up a bit of a fight, but eventually caves thanks to Kahn sexually humiliating her - and golly he’s just so dang hot! So instead of doing something useful, like finding a gun and shooting him, she continues to argue with him, train for The Challenge and look for ways to please him.

Excuse me while I cough up a hairball.

The last 100 pages or so of the story do improve a bit because Kahn stops scrapping his knuckles on the ground. He still calls her woman – but we can’t expect miracles. The sex is also pretty hot, if you can get past the displeasure of Kahn humiliating Tessa on a couple of occasions by bringing her to the brink then abandoning her. My hero. It’s not really domination and submission play per se, but there is some kinkier stuff involved (such as spanking) that makes these scenes comparable to a romantica novel.

Despite the intriguing promise of the plot, The Challenge is ultimately an extremely frustrating read. In her forward Kearney mentions that she first wrote this story in the early 1990s, but at that time no one was buying “sexy paranormals.” However it’s hard to find any book “sexy” when the hero leaves the reader so cold that it’s like shooting over Niagara Falls naked, in a barrel, in February. It’s really too bad Tessa never looked for a gun on that spaceship. She could have disposed of the hero that evolution forgot.

--Wendy Crutcher


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