Author: Pauline Baird Jones
Genre: Science Fiction Romance
Stand Alone or Series: Stand alone novel, although with potential for a sequel.
Why did we read this book: Pauline dropped us an email and graciously provided review copies of this novel. Although it took a while to get through the rotation, we are proud to (finally) present our review.
Summary: (from PaulineBJones.com)
When Sara Donovan joins Project Enterprise she finds out that what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger…
An Air Force pilot – the best of the best to be assigned to this mission – Sara isn’t afraid to travel far beyond the Milky Way on an assignment that takes her into a galaxy torn apart by a long and bitter warfare between the Dusan and the Gadi.
After she’s shot down and manages to land safely on an inhospitable planet, Sara encounters Kiernan Fyn – a seriously hot alien with a few secrets of his own – he’s a member of a resistance group called the Ojemba, lead by the mysterious and ruthless Kalian. Together they must avoid capture, but can they avoid their growing attraction to each other?
A mysterious, hidden city on the planet brings Sara closer to the answers she seeks – about her baffling abilities and her mother’s past. She has no idea she’s being pulled into the same danger her mother fled – the key to a secret left behind by a lost civilization, the Garradians.
The Dusan and the Gadi want the key. So do the Ojemba. They think Sara has it. They are willing to do anything to get it.
Sara will have to do anything to stop them…
Thea: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Key. As always I am a little apprehensive when reading smaller or independently published works, unsure if I’ll get a dud or a hidden gem. I have to admit that The Key did surpass my expectations, and I found it an entertaining, surprisingly quick read (especially considering it is about five hundred pages in length). This is an enjoyable novel, and a solid entry in the SF/R genre. I did have a good amount of conflict with the political overtones and the writing style, but overall, I walked away from this book feeling thoroughly entertained. In discussion with Ana, we came to the consensus that The Key is comparable to a Jerry Bruckheimer film: fast paced and good fun, (not to mention full of ‘American’ flair) but so long as you are willing to suspend disbelief and not think about anything for too long.
Ana: I am always cautious when reading something by an author new to me and I try to start the book with as few expectations as possible. The Key turned out to be a very rocky read for me. There were very good sequences – mostly the pure sci-fi ones –a fantastic heroine and some laugh out-loud moments that made me a popular figure at the gym; but also quite a few which were permeated with political ideas I do not share and that marred a little bit of the fun I was having with an otherwise enjoyable and fast-paced read. The Jerry Bruckheimer comparison is spot on. Oh, and I really like the cover.
On the Plot:
Sara Donovan is a Captain in the United States Air Force–and her bird is spiralling out of control, heading for a crash landing on an island on an alien planet. When she comes to, Sara realizes that she is not alone. A “caveman” has pulled her clear from her ship, bandaged her, and disarmed her. Warily, Sara comes to talking with her rescuer, and she discovers her ET caveman is an Ojemba warrior named Fyn. Shortly after crashing, the two find themselves allies against the odious Dusan invaders, whose motto is to kill first and ask questions later. Fyn and Sara manage to dispatch of the Dusan without any trouble, and soon after Sara’s people–the USAF–arrive on the scene to extract her and her new friend.
Back on the mothership, the Doolittle, Sara and Fyn meet with Colonel Halliwell. Fyn relates his story, and explains that he was wrecked on the planet for months, on a mission from his people to find the last Garradian outpost–home to secrets so powerful, that those who wield it could finally end the long war between the Gadi and the Dusan. Fyn also relates that there is nothing on the planet, at least not from what he could tell. However, Sara feels a pull to the island–and when she was landing her bird, she remembers distinctly seeing an image of a city on the island. On her next flight out, Sara’s autopilot takes over and forces her to land on the island once more, only this time she enters the cloaked city. Something in Sara’s past, the legacy of her mother Miri, calls to her in this lost outpost and Sara begins to understand why she can do the special things (spontaneous healing, mentally tapping into computers and other electronics systems, etc) she does.
While she and Fyn share a growing attraction, other dangerous parties–the Dusan and Gadi–will seemingly stop at nothing to possess Sara as they know that she is the holder of ‘The Key’ to the Garradian’s power.
Thea: Plot-wise, this is a briskly paced book, covering a good deal of action and story over its five hundred pages. One of the interesting choices here is the time period–Ms. Jones decides not to set this novel in the distant future, but rather in present day. The US Government has unlocked the secrets of intergalactic travel, and secretly has dispatched Project Enterprise–naturally–to boldly go where no man has gone before. This explains the many pop culture references the characters make (i.e. calling Fyn “ET” or “Chewie”, references to Almond Joy candy bars and E-Bay). Suspending disbelief, this choice in time period was a nice touch as most authors choose to set things in the future and then are awkwardly forced to creating new names for everyday items (as we have just finished reviewing Driven, I can safely say I prefer the method taken here in The Key).
The romance plot, the mystery and intrigue of warring aliens (who appear identical to humans and speak English) were all nicely handled. Although there wasn’t much surprise as to what ‘The Key’ really is and there is a strong degree of predictability to the story, the pacing is executed perfectly, making this book a very smooth read. Yes, it is completely unrealistic. Yes, all these aliens probably shouldn’t be so obsessed with Sara. Yes, the ugly duckling who is really a swan storyline has been done into the ground. Yes, the Dusan are predictably evil for the sake of being evil. And yet, despite all these tired devices, the story just works! At face value, I enjoyed the contrast between the different cultures, especially with the severe Dusan and frilly Gadi. I also appreciated the romantic elements to the story, and the slower pace taken with the relationship between Sara and Fyn–which certainly runs counter to romance novel conventions. In general, I enjoyed the story.
There are two things that detracted from my reading experience. The first is minor, and purely stylistic. Ms. Jones is rather fond of ellipses (the “…”). There’s no problem with using ellipses. I myself am a fan! My issue with the punctuation device in The Key, however, is that it is used repeatedly to the point of distracting from the story. On a random opening of the book, on any given page, there will be at least one use of an ellipses–in most cases, there are more. It was frustrating and kept jarring me out of the story.
The other issue is one both Ana and I will address later in the review.
Ana: A lot happens in the book, with plenty of twists and action-packed sequences, enough to keep one engaged in the reading. I echo Thea’s thoughts on the choice of time period – that was an interesting change from the usual “at some point in the future” and one that allows some nice touches and shout outs to pop culture: Star Wars, Star Trek, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Phantom of the Opera and even Spider-Man, which for a geek such as I, made the book very enjoyable.
The quest for the Key and the conflict between the two alien races, the Gadi and the Dusan are predictable and somewhat unrealistic – the Key plotline is also a bit too coincidental for my tastes BUT still in many points, it was all nicely done. I was particularly impressed with the description of the “birds” – the flying ships and all the other sci-fi components of the story.
Whereas the plot was fast-paced the same cannot be said for the romance. Things happened slowly but surely between Sara and Fyn and all things considered it was very realistic and why not, sweet. Yes, they were attracted to each other at first sight but they didn’t act on it immediately and the sex only happens after wedding and behind close doors.
On the Characters:
Thea: With the characters, it’s kind of a mixed bag. The biggest draw to this story, for me, was the fun, fast plotting. Our heroine, Sara Donovan, is highly enjoyable. There was a bit of Mary Sue-ness to her–in that she’s incredibly beautiful but doesn’t realize it, she can kick anyone’s ass even chained, she can do practically anything thanks to her special ‘abilities’–and yet I found her to be a likable character. I liked her fiery temper, flaring up anytime someone would tell her she couldn’t do something because she was a woman (although this got tiresome as the book wore on), and I like that she didn’t take any crap. Would a character like this really get away with even a fraction of the stunts she pulls in the USAF? Mmm, no. But she’s written as such a likable character and connects with readers–so it is forgivable. Of all the characters, Sara is the most fleshed out. Details about her past as a foster child, her reliance on music to soothe herself, her insecurities are all fully explored in full in this novel, giving a firm handle on Sara as a real character and not just a stock Mary Sue.
The character of Fyn doesn’t have the same appeal as Sara, although he is another likable character. There wasn’t as much focus on his thoughts or any real established depth to the character, which is unfortunate. We learn about Fyn’s struggles with his Ojemba bond and his newfound belief in the ways of his new friends, and we also learn about his loneliness. All of these character developments feel strangely lacking, however, and Fyn never really comes to life for me. Even when he is reunited with someone from his past, we never really get to see what he’s feeling or thinking, and he’s always just a bit detached. Despite this lack, both Fyn and Sara are a good fit and likable enough–their relationship is solid and one that readers can get behind.
The cast of secondary characters is nicely filled out–I liked the camaraderie between Sara and the dancing, retired Briggs; the stern but caring Colonel; and so on and so forth.
As for the antagonists…I liked the major roles the characters of Adin Xever (leader of the Dusan) and Helfron Gaddioni (leader of the Gadi) played. Although, as is the falling with many Supreme Evil Villains, Xever was consistently one note. His fascination with Sara and desire to have her no matter what came across as unbelievable and kinda cheesy. I also was not a fan of his later revelations that his way of life was not as good and whole as the Americans on the Doolittle, but more on that later. As with Helfron of the Gadi, I appreciated the more layered approach to his character. Frilly and literally pink on the outside, his ruthlessness and command as leader of his people is hidden well, and develops nicely as the story progresses.
Ana: Unlike Thea, the biggest draw for me was Sara. She was an immensely sympathetic and enjoyable character. She was the reason I kept reading when the sheer amount of ellipsis or the political message were a major interference to my reading experience. Yes, she was over idealised – the ugly duckling that felt unloved and yet everyone protected and estimated to the point of losing focus to the mission at hand. Yes, she was all-powerful and could do everything she wanted. Still, it was so much FUN to be inside her head, especially at those moments where she completely lost her temper. I couldn’t help but to cheer every time she fought an injustice or a prejudiced view against women and I was never tired of it. She was a complex, likeable character and fully fleshed-out. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the other characters in the book, particularly Fyn.
I wished we could have known more about him, about his years in isolation, his motivations for joining the Ojemba and what “he could do” – that kept being hinted at but never truly explored until the very end when it was already too little too late. I was extremely disappointed at the development of a certain plotline between Fyn and someone from his past and felt that the closure of that particular story was way too easy and lacking the angst that was called for.
Final Observations, Recommendations and Rating:
Thea: As we touched on in the “Plot” section above, the other, more major issue for us was the political tone and stance of the novel. Since this is primarily a fiction book review blog, Ana and I strive to keep things neutral with hot topic issues. No politics at the dinner table and all that. With a book like The Key, however, it would be impossible (and unfair) to write a review without addressing the more political issues involved. Ms. Jones writes this book from a decidedly American point of view, and her characters (all in the third person narration) all accept this patriotic world view. The United States Air Force plays a prominent role in the story, and the more traditional stance of America being a beacon of freedom & justice, the virtues of having volunteer armed forces, and the notion that infidels will see the wrong in their ways and become Americanized are very strong themes in this novel. There are a number of direct analogies made between the Dusan and the former Soviet Union–and by direct, I mean direct. Furthermore, through the use of different anecdotal stories from the United State’s history–of the strength and smarts of Andrew Jackson, the country’s history of fighting against tyranny for the good of ideals, the fall of the Soviet Union once “the head” was taken out of the picture by Americans–the strong patriotic American themes are strongly emphasized.
This may not be palatable to some readers. Ana and I have discussed this at length, and the role politics or personal beliefs should play in trying to review and rate a book. While I am an American citizen, I have grown up overseas for my entire childhood–predominantly in Indonesia. I also majored in both economics and history at a decidedly liberal university. Suffice to say, I have a different interpretation of the Cold War and a very different world view than those presented in this novel.
Although I personally do not prescribe to the brand of politics in The Key, I cannot censure the book based on differences in personal beliefs. The themes do not sit well with me, especially in light of the current world situation, and I do think it is fair to bring this aspect of the book to light here in the review.
This isn’t in any way to detract from the book overall, but rather to let readers know what they could be getting into with The Key. Again, to return to the analogy we used earlier–the best comparison can be made between The Key and a film such as Pearl Harbor or Independence Day. The story on its own is fun and highly entertaining–it’s just the politics may get in the way (with the whole Americans saving the world sort of storyline).
Ana: Although I feel that this topic is potentially explosive, I am with Thea : it needs to be addressed. Being born and bred in a South American country, which suffered (and still does) the intervention of the US under the disguise of “help” (the main example that comes to me was the CIA help with deposing a leftist president and replacing it with a dictatorial military coup that lasted 30 years), I can not sit idly by and see America being raised as THE beacon of justice and freedom – it just leaves a sour taste in my mouth. If my particular background wasn’t enough, I too, am a History major from a very liberal university and I can’t even begin to describe how different our interpretation of world events is and the references to the old Soviet Union were simply outdated, and put mildly, eye rolling.
Having said that, I am in no way saying that America is evil or that Americans can not be patriotic – of course they can and they should, there is much to be said about patriotism and the pursuit of justice and freedom and I admire it immensely and frankly wish Brazilians were more like that. It is only when a people look at themselves as the SOLE representatives of all the good in the world and that the ones that don’t follow their example are in the wrong and should change their point of view accordingly – it is the interventionism and the black and white play on politics that just don’t sit well with me. That every single Alien in the book, revaluates their way of life when they come into contact with the USAF was too much of a stretch.
This is a very personal view and I am sure others will not have these problems while reading The Key and as Thea, I thought the book was fun and entertaining, if I ignored the underlying politics.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Thea: I love the scene where Sara, completely pissed off at Adin Xever’s dismissive attitude towards women, takes matters into her own hands with her band, stomping and singing “I Am Woman”.
Ana: I love the scene that Thea quotes as well, it was amazing, I was cheering and laughing. Definitely one of the highlights of the book was the clever use of music – Sara played keyboard and sang in the ship’s band. Another moment I loved was when she sang to Fyn , “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from the Phantom of the Opera in a poignant scene that spoke about her past and how she wished she had met her parents. Very touching.
Thea: 6 Good A tough call, especially considering the reservations I have, but overall I found this to be a very readable, enjoyable book.
Ana: 6 – Good recommended with reservations
Reading next: A Wallflower Christmas by Lisa Kleypas