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The Challenge by Susan Kearney
Review by Gayle Surrette
Tor Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0765348918
Date: 01 February, 2005 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

The Challenge by Susan Kearney has a very interesting cast of characters and premise. Special Agent Tessa Camen takes a bullet for the President but wakes up naked, in the future, in the arms of a very hunky guy, and is told she?s Earth's champion in a contest that could win the world technology that would help heal it?s dying environment. Okay, the book jacket pulled me in ... so, sue me. Besides, I?m a sucker for romance, especially if it?s neatly tied up in a good story.

So, what went wrong? Well, the plot demands that Tessa give her life for the President and she has to be shown to be competent, strong, and independent. The book starts off strong but then we come to the press conference and the attempt on the President's life. Many of us in the US have lived through a presidential assassination attempt (or two) and the seemingly unending rehash in the news; but the one in this book is just unbelievably over the top ? I mean really, three separate attempts one after the other and requiring infiltration of the secret service on multiple levels. This unrealistic attempt while driven by the plot is unbelievable. If you can get past that you may be able to take the next unbelievable event.

Tessa must develop her innate psychic ability (which she didn't know she had) in order to control her suit and win the challenge and gain Earth entry into the Federation. She?s to be trained by Kahn, who is from Rystan. Kahn?s planet needs protection from their enemies, the Endekians, who wish to steal the Rystan?s glow stones and use them as weapons. Rystan has been thrown into an ice age as a result of a war. The federation suits are all that allow Kahn?s people to survive on their planet; the suits control the temperature for the wearer, protect them from injury, and keep them clean, and can be psychically shaped into clothing.

Kahn cannot tell Tessa anything about the challenge, how to awaken her psychic abilities, or about the new world and society she finds herself in. Tessa tries to adapt to her changed circumstances. Kahn comes from a planet with an extreme patriarchal society that sees women as poor, weak, barely sentient, baby-machines who must be trained and led by their men. This doesn?t make things any easier for Tessa. Nor does the fact that Kahn believes that the only way to awaken her psychic ability is via sexual frustration. So there are many varied and explicitly detailed sexual frustration techniques and later detailed sexual fulfillment fantasies as Tessa and Kahn train.

I?m as liberated as the next person but many of Kahn?s techniques are tantamount to sexual and mental abuse. Tessa seems to react with classic abuse coping mechanisms that cause her to bond with her abuser. Of course, this is your standard romance novel with a science fiction background and everything is going to turn out alright in the end (that?s a given in these books). But, I was appalled at the way Tessa continually bowed to Kahn?s demands even when she knew they were wrong-headed and the way she took the blame for doing things that Kahn had never told her were forbidden or counter-productive to his plans for her and her resources.

The story could have been much better. I think the writer has skill but took the easy way out rather than having the two main characters actually work through their differences ? it was mostly Tessa adapting and Kahn simply accepting that she was different. I think the ending was more wish fulfillment than what would actually happen within the parameters set up by the author for the story.

However, if you like paranormal romance and can park your brain while reading there are some interesting cultural variations and lots of background interests such as the sentient AI in the spaceship, the suit, some of the alien races, and a weirdly unexpected challenge that make the book worth intriguing, if frustrating - for both reader and heroine.

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