Heart Thief by Robin D. Owens
(Berkley, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-19072-2
In her debut novel, Heart Mate, Robin D. Owens introduced us to the planet Celta, where almost all of the population has some sort of psychic talent, or Flair. Heart Thief takes us back to Celta and into the life of an outcast - a man with no Flair, but whose talents are nonetheless brilliant, if completely unappreciated.

Ruis Elder is a Null. Not only does he possess no Flair whatsoever, but in his presence, the Flair of others is nullified. For this, he is regarded with deep hatred and suspicion by his own family, and has been disinherited, though by rights he is the Heir to the powerful GreatHouse Elder.

Ruis has made his living as a thief, though survival is almost secondary to his desire to restore some of the early technological objects he has found. He wears a watch, for instance, something other Celtans don’t do. When the story opens, Ruis is arrested and taken in chains before the Grand Council, which has the power to see him executed. As he awaits his trial, he meets a lovely young woman, obviously a Noble, also there to go before the Council. She is Ailim D’Silverfir, head of GreatHouse Silverfir and a judge in her own right.

Ailim’s Flair is telempathy - she can always sense others’ emotions. Being near Ruis knocks that out, something she finds incredibly restful. In his presence, her mind is not constantly battered by the emotions raging around her - she is free to simply relax, unshielded and free. Ailim is petitioning the Council to ask for a loan, a humiliating prospect, but one that might set her House on the road to prosperity once again.

The Council votes for banishment from Druida City, not execution, as a punishment for Ruis, much to the disgust of his Uncle Bucus, the head of GreatHouse Elder and an obvious villain from the start. But Ruis has an ally in Danith, Lady T’Ash (from Heart Mate) and she meets him outside the city walls to present him with a cat named Samba, who will be his Fam, or companion. Most Fam cats transmit their thoughts by telepathy, but since Ruis has no Flair, that won’t work for him. Samba, however, prefers to make her thoughts known by “speaking” in a series of purrs and growls that make sense to a person sensitive to her.

Ruis is astonished when another shadowy figure approaches him outside the walls - Ailim, unable to resist seeing if Ruis is all right, and wanting to spend just a little more time in his presence. They linger, unwilling to break the connection. Finally Ruis must leave, but unbeknownst to anyone, he isn’t leaving Druida City. Instead, he takes up residence in the hulking spaceship called Nuada’s Sword, the only remnant of the Earth colonists who settled Celta generations ago. Celtans believe the ship is cursed. Ruis knows no one will look for him there. But he’s in for a surprise, as his presence awakens the ship’s artificial intelligence and he is declared to be the new Captain.

The proper judge and the thief on the run soon meet again. Ruis, with years of street living under his belt, is unsure how to approach an obvious lady. Ailim wonders how to cast off her own inhibitions. Their attraction is magnetic, and their meetings grow riskier as their affair heats up.

I enjoyed every bit of Heart Thief, starting with the lead characters. Ruis is a gentleman under the thief’s exterior, but rage at his situation bubbles beneath the surface. If he doesn’t learn to manage his anger, it may lead to his undoing. His yearning for Ailim and his fear that he’ll never be able to live up to her lofty background add vulnerability to his character, which offsets his cocky exterior nicely.

Ailim struggles under the weight of her responsibilities, both as a judge and as the leader of her GreatHouse. Surrounded by carping relatives, the orderly world of the legal system appears to be almost an escape hatch of sorts. When Ruis enters that world, she faces a difficult decision: live by the letter of the law, or bend it to see true justice done?

This led to a problem area for me. The much-vaunted legal system of Celta seemed virtually nonexistent during Ruis’s trial. Instead, it appeared that a group of GreatHouse nobles could twist the law to suit their purposes, and they had absolute power to decide someone’s death. No attorneys, no appeals, no higher court. Perhaps this was necessary to push the plot forward, but it made a bit of a mockery out of Ailim’s devotion to the law. Petty thieves get a real judge, trained in the law, but anyone who’s offended a noble gets the wrath of the self-interested Council, who sit where they are purely by chance of birth.

I also struggled a bit with the character of the ship, which displayed human emotions such as jealousy and anger. Ruis is brilliant with machines, but the biggest machine on the planet acts human. Even accepting future artificial intelligence, this required a suspension of belief that I just couldn’t manage.

Kudos to the author for crafting a top-notch ending of supreme cleverness. Ruis is indeed a hero, and when events spin to a climax, the fact that he is a Null allows him to do something that will impact the future of Celta. This book just got better and better as it went along.

Celta becomes a full-fledged world in Heart Thief, and the complex plot and rich characterizations, not to mention the sexy passion between Ruis and Ailim, make this a must-read follow-up to last year’s stunning Heart Mate. I just wish Robin D. Owens wrote faster. I hope she’s got a huge pile of ideas for future Celtan stories, and I for one can’t wait to go back.

--Cathy Sova

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