HeartMate by Robin D. Owens
(Jove, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-13289-6
HeartMate, Robin Owens’ debut futuristic romance, injects a blast of originality and fire into this struggling sub-genre. Engaging characters, effortless world-building, and a sizzling romance make this a novel that’s almost impossible to put down.

On the planet Celta, citizens are renowned for their Flair, a psi power that comes in different forms. The strongest Flair belongs to the noble families of the twelve Great Houses, of which Rand T’Ash is a member. Sole survivor of an arson that took the lives of his family and burned his home, he spent his formative years living in the slums of Downwind, the ghetto of Druida City. Rand gained his revenge and re-established his House, the House of Ash, and as T’Ash, he is now the head of it.

Rand’s Flair is an affinity with stones and gems. This power has allowed him to become the most renowned jeweler on Celta, and his shop carries only the best stones. The story opens when Rand is told by his stone prophecy dice that today he will meet his HeartMate, the woman who will bond with him for life. Rand already knows who she is. It’s the auburn-haired woman who has been in his shop frequently over the past few months, purchasing small, select gems. To this woman Rand will give the necklace he created nearly twenty years ago, a work of art that embodies his heart and soul.

The woman Rand so desires is Danith Mallow, an accountant and commoner. Danith cannot resist the pull of the necklace, but she fears this unknown power. Danith is an orphan and fancies herself in love with her best friend’s brother, a man whose kindly relatives seem to fulfill her dream of a place in a large, loving family. Her unwilling attraction to the dark-haired stranger with the sky-blue eyes is unnerving. When she learns he is the notorious Rand T’Ash, Danith is doubly determined to have nothing to do with him. He’s a nobleman. She’s a commoner with little Flair. They would never suit.

Rand is equally determined to woo Danith, aided by his sidekick Zanth, a cat who is his Familiar and with whom he shares telepathic thoughts. But a man who grew up in the slums and trained as a warrior has little knowledge of courtship. His gifts to Danith are interpreted by her as attempts to make her his mistress. As rocky as his courtship goes, though, it is Rand who will open up a new world to Danith. When he coaxes her into being tested for Flair using his own powerful Testing Stones, it’s revealed that she has psi power in great quantity, and her strength is the healing of animals, a rarity on Celta. This elevates Danith to Great House status on her own merits. Will she now be able to meet Rand as an equal, even though he has no family to offer her?

So the man who grew up a slum rat and the woman who grew up an unwanted orphan need to convince themselves they deserve all the fine things they see in each other. The sexual tension between them sizzles, as Danith tries to resist the pull and Rand tries to keep his carnal urges in check. When they finally do consummate their relationship, it’s in a very unusual and highly erotic way.

The secondary characters bring additional facets to the story. Holm Holly, heir to the house of Holly, proves himself a friend to the loner T’Ash (and hopefully will be destined for his own book). The shadowy Ruis Elder, a Null (or person with no Flair, considered an outcast) plays a minor but important role. And the cats are simply a riot, especially the loyal but self-absorbed Zanth.

Early on, the author wrestles a bit with Celtan terminology in an effort to establish this world (if they drink “tea”, the use of a “t’pot” seemed unnecessarily precious) but after the first chapter, it fades into the background and readers are left to just enjoy the unfolding story, with Celtan elements introduced more gradually. I for one would like to spend a lot more time on Celta, with its psi population, class struggles, and vivid imagery. This is no space-pirate society, but rather a rich, layered place with many different aspect to savor. There is plenty here to set the stage for sequels, too. We can only hope.

HeartMate is a powerful, engrossing debut by a welcome new voice in fantasy romance. This one may well keep you glued in your chair. It’s definitely going on my keeper shelf.

--Cathy Sova

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