To Touch the Stars by Tess Mallory
(LoveSpell, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-505-52253-5
***
To Touch the Stars just might be the right book to hand a man who wants to try reading a romance. It's plot-driven, action-heavy, has plenty of bad guys, and the romance won't make him squirm. While these things might make it an enjoyable read for someone whose usual tastes run to Tom Clancy, they present drawbacks for the romance lover. As always, much will depend on your personal taste.

Skyra Cezan is the captain of a rebel ship, fighting the oppression of the Dominion Forces led by the evil Zarn. Sky is trying desperately to find her younger sister, Mayra, who has been missing for years ever since Zarn conquered Sky's home world of Andromeda and murdered her parents. Both Sky and Mayra have the ability to read others' thoughts, and Mayra is also a healer. As such, she's a valuable pawn in Zarn's hands. Sky is determined to rescue her from the notorious Station One, a sort of "re-education center" for children unfortunate enough to be captured by Zarn's forces.

It's Sky's bad luck that the man in charge of Station One is Zarn's son, Eagle. Eagle is having quite a few doubtful thoughts about his father's regime, especially since part of his job is to mind-probe the poor kids who have landed at Station One. This involves sticking a needle in their brain and suppressing their natural memories. Quite a re-education. Eagle isn't happy about it, and as the story opens, he's just about made up his mind to do something. For starters, he'll refuse to mind-probe the girl who has just arrived, a child of thirteen named Mayra.

As Eagle is pondering, Sky and her pals attack, using a cache of illegal weapons to blast their way onto the station. Eagle is taken prisoner when Mayra turns up missing. Sky plans to use every weapon at her disposal, including torture, to find out where Mayra has been taken. Unfortunately, Eagle has no idea. He entrusted Mayra to a friend and doesn't know where she's gone. Sky isn't buying any of it.

Meanwhile, Zarn is on the trail of Sky and Eagle. He wants to get his hands on Mayra, and he no longer trusts his son. Good intuition on his part. Eagle, of course, is hiding a secret; he's also very attracted to this woman who claims to be rescuing her sister.

The story shifts locales several times, eventually returning both Sky and Eagle to their roots. Zarn is in hot pursuit, and it will take the combined talents of several people to foil him. There are enough twists and turns that readers won't be bored.

But the thrill-ride pacing carries a price. Like I said, this is definitely a plot-driven book. Forget about getting to know Sky very well; Eagle is only slightly better. They lust after each other, but I never got the feeling that it was much more than that. Sky is presented as a foul-mouthed, brassy sort who covers up her nerves and insecurity by ordering people around, especially Eagle. Eagle ogles her body, but can't stand her personality and doesn't trust her story. Since they are so often at odds with each other, it makes the romance feel unconvincing, at best.

But if the romance is lukewarm, the action does keep the story moving. Zarn isn't the only baddie in the book, and though the other villains are pretty easy to spot right off, it's not too overt. The secondary characters are interesting, too. In many ways, I was more intrigued by Mayra and her protector, Telles, than I was by either Sky or Eagle. There was enough vulnerability and warmth about both of their characters to make them stand out in relief against the unrelenting suspicion of Sky and Eagle. In fact, they'd make a worthy couple in their own right, and there are hints that Mallory may have plans in that direction, too.

So there you have it: a mixed bag of a futuristic romance. If you like plenty of action, have fun; if you like stories where you can really get to know the characters and root for their union, To Touch the Stars probably won't do it, although the trip is entertaining enough that you may not care too much.

--Cathy Sova


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