I’ll be honest, I bought Beyond the Red because author Ava Jae was having a signing at the bookstore where I work, she was very nice, and I wanted to get a book signed. Plus, I just really loved the cover (and I was majorly drooling over the matte finish to the cover jacket).
I didn’t read the synopsis until I’d gotten the book home. It promises a story of two very different people on a faraway desert planet: Kora, an alien queen, struggling with a people and a brother who do not respect her as well as a human rebellion on the outskirts of her city; and Eros, a half-blood boy raised by the nomadic human rebels but hated by both the planet’s races, recently enslaved by Kora herself. Kora is of the planet, but Eros is of the desert, and the planet of Safara makes them natural enemies. Throughout Beyond the Red, both Kora and Eros must choose between loyalty, love, and their own lives as court intrigue, romance, violence, and a strange bond developing between them keep their lives far from boring.
Initially, I had trouble getting into the book because I was under the impression that it was going to be primarily Kora’s story. Instead, we open with several chapters from Eros’s point of view, and I was feeling a bit displaced by an immediate dive into action and emotional turmoil. And — as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before — I tend to struggle with books written from multiple points of view, and, at first, Beyond the Red was no exception.
Somewhere down the line, however, I became completely hooked by the book and couldn’t put it down. I loved when we’d switch from Eros’s voice to Kora’s and back again. While Kora had a very straight-forward and almost logical narration, Eros was an emotional wreck — so atypical to what you might expect from a male narrator — whose narrative pattern was littered with fun colloquial terms and sayings like “blazing,” “fucken,” and “kinduv.” (Something else Jae does very well is inventing and then dedicating herself to a set vocabulary for her alien world and characters. I loved it!) With this, you almost always know whose chapter you’re reading even if you forget to check the chapter heading, or blaze right past it. The alternating points of view are not only refreshing as you hop between them, but they also keep us well informed of the many events occurring throughout the plot. We switch between the characters at plot points that actually make sense to the timeline rather than by structural necessity.
Another gripping point to Beyond the Red was the intense, almost magnetic sexual tension between Eros and Kora. I’m always a sucker for a bit of romance, and fierce but forbidden romance is as fun as any. The romance in this book is, in a way, almost turned on its head in that it breaks common romantic gender roles. As the somewhat more aggressively logical of the two main characters, Kora admits that she hadn’t “looked at Eros romantically in the past, at least, not seriously” and actively reminds herself that it wouldn’t make sense or that it would hinder her politically to be with him. Only twice does she let her emotions take control of her reactions to Eros and remains relatively aloof and rational otherwise. This makes Kora a relative exception to how a female romantic lead tends to act in that emotions — negatively associated with women since Plato — don’t play into her actions and responses. Eros, on the other hand, is the more invested of the two in the closeness of their relationship, a role stereotypically written into the female character of a romantic plot. Throughout, it is manly warrior Eros we listen to ruminating about Kora, worrying about her, her feelings, her reactions, her rejections, her other relationships. He often showers compliments on Kora, mentally, of course. Readers can tell that Eros completely reveres her as an individual as much if not more than he appreciates her as a female love interest, which is not only great to witness in a male character but is also one of my personal favorite relationship tropes.
My only reservations as Beyond the Red was wrapping up remained the several questions I had concerning the society and politics of the land of Safara. There was a brief explanation as to how the humans arrived to the alien planet and its solar system from Earth that established somewhat of a history, but the steps from visiting race and original race to slave race and dominant race have yet to be fully elucidated. Similarly, we know from the start that Kora has the political position of queen, but then we learn that there are other sovereignties as well as a ruling family, the Sirae, whose kingship overrules and supersedes the authority of all others, including Kora. So how much power does Kora really have? Are there relations among the sovereignties other than marriage contracts and attending each others’ wild birthday celebrations? I’m also highly interested in what the pseudo-political atmosphere must be across Safara amongst the nomadic human rebels — do the camps interact? Trade? Avoid each other at all costs? Do the human leaders interact often or not at all? While these are pressing questions concerning the world-building aspects of the book, I’m sure we’ll greater insight in the sequel(s?).
All in all, though I bought Beyond the Red with zero idea what I was getting myself into, it was a bold science fiction debut packed with action, interesting characters, romance, and surprises. The plot is mature, well-paced, and driven. Its characters kept me on my toes throughout and also pulled a bit at my heartstrings. I would even go so far as to admit that Eros is the first male character whose point of view I’ve actively enjoyed in quite awhile while Kora was a wily package of perseverance, acute intelligence, beauty, and strength that I would like to protect from all things. While I was completely unprepared for this to be the start of a series, I am more than ready for the next installment in Eros and Kora’s escapades to come out right now.