Susan Kearney – "The Challenge"

22 Jul

GENRE: Romance / Science fiction (Futuristic)
PUBLISHED: Tor, 2005

The back blurb:
“She was shot protecting the president, and woke up naked, in the arms of a hunk …
… a hunk named Kahn, who told Secret Service agent Tessa Came an outlandish story about traveling through time, saving the world, and a Challenge only she can accept. Kahn offers her proof she can’t refute and Tessa must accept that she has been brought forward through time to save Earth by winning an intergalactic challenge.
Kahn only has a few weeks to train Tessa to use the psi-abilities he insists she has. He is confident in the success of a time-honored method that uses sexual frustration to bring out her powers, but Tessa is dubious. She’s a material arts expert and can fight her way through anything, but she’s n ever had much luck with emotions.
Luckily for Earth, Kahn can be very convincing …”

I bought this novel because I’m (was) interested in Kearney’s novel The Ultimatum (I think there was a favourable blog post about it) which is part of a science fiction series. And because I’m really strange about reading novels which are part of a series and not reading the preceding one(s) first, I thought about ordering The Challenge (first novel of the series). I wasn’t too hot about the story of The Challenge when I took a closer look at it but after deciding that I would really like to read The Ultimatum, I decided to go ahead with ordering The Challenge. Good thing I didn’t order all novels in this series at once (note to self: book budget problems can be useful). But first things first.

At the beginning of the novel, I encountered a few things that I had to push to the back of my mind while reading to give the story a chance and me the possibility to get into it. The novel starts with an assassination on a president, and I found the way that is handled way over the top and therefore hard to believe (Tessa saves the president (almost?) single-handedly). It then continues with Tessa’s waking up on Kahn’s spaceship naked (p. 10). And Tessa stays naked. Not good, I thought, because in my eyes it was a serious degradation of Tessa. But then, I was interested how Kearney would handle this for Tessa is supposed to be a strong woman (see saving of president). I continued reading, scratched my head over the Challenge stuff, but I got my explanation for Tessa’s nakedness (p. 64). By then, I also had the answer why Tessa was chosen for the Challenge (p. 32).

There are more “Huh?” moments – moments that were triggered by things that were hard to believe to happen that way/by mere plot contrivances/by inconsistencies – throughout the novel. I even groaned out loud after reading one (p.114). At some point, I just didn’t care any longer (obviously this was past page 114). I was on the outside of the story, looking in (and I think that is part of the reason I “saw” lots of flaws with this story). I tried to view the novel as some tongue-in-cheek fluff, but that didn’t work for me either.

The main reason for that is possibly the heroine, Tessa Camen, who’s a Mary Sue character in my eyes. Sure, there is not much mentioning of her beauty (maybe you can count the first sentence, see above), BUT there is

  • She saves all and everything – repeatedly: the president, a small kid, *spoiler*, and not to forget, if she wins the Challenge she saves Earth and Kahn’s planet all at once. Neat.
  • She has a near-death experience (NDE), everybody is upset and prays for her recovery (I don’t mean the healing circle stuff here), and yes, all this is of course connected to saving the kid.
  • She is loved by all and everybody. If not at first look, then certainly after her NDE or after they realise all the good things (food, liberating the women – see the save all and everything point) Tessa can do for them.
  • She sets up a business partnership (with somebody who is shunned by nearly everybody else because of his ugliness, of course) and it takes off like nothing you would ever imagine. No money worries from now on.

For me, such a character is hard to take seriously and hard to view as a real character. With that said, I like that Tessa is intelligent in the ways she goes about doing things. Plus points for that.

The hero, Kahn, is your standard caveman model. He and his people (Kahn is the leader) even live in underground caves because they nuked themselves back to prehistoric times. Unfortunately, it seems that along with their technology, they nuked their behaviour back there, too. Kahn keeps Tessa naked (yes, I know, it is explained), he carries her around, he regards her as in need of protection, and so on and so on. He’s the product of a very patriarchal society which of course cherishes women above all and everything. It’s just that the women don’t know what is good for them, so the men have to step in. And so there is another opportunity for Tessa to save the day because she challenges the way women are regarded in that society. Yes, Kahn learns to adapt to Tessa and change (some of) his views, but basically if you think man = boss, woman = servant you a pretty correct picture of Kahn for large parts of the story.

Now the story itself is about the Challenge. The Federation of Planets will only accept Earth into their alliance if one of their inhabitants (Tessa) pass the Federation’s “Challenge”. What this Challenge is, nobody is allowed to say. It must involve using psi-abilities because Kahn has to awake Tessa’s latent psi-powers in preparation for the Challenge. To accomplish this, he – according to the manual – has to frustrate Tessa sexually (this involves bondage elements and some spanking). For a man, the awakening of his psi-powers would be achieved through combat. Well, for Tessa, it doesn’t work like the manual says and, like the caveman he is, Kahn finally comes to accepts this. Tessa’s training now relies on combat frustration.

Then Kahn and Tessa are off to Kahn’s planet. After they arrived there, I got the impression that the training and the so important Challenge took a backseat to the events happening there. Yes, there are sentences like: “Tessa trained,” but with all that is going on I can’t imagine that much time was spent on it. Some savings-of-the-day later, Tessa and Kahn are off to do the Challenge. As official witnesses to this crucial event, there are Kahn’s father, his step-mother, and Tessa’s business partner. Yep, I believe that. The Challenge itself – well, there were some nice tasks, but as Tessa thought after she reached the goal:

“This was it?” (p.373)

Futuristic elements?

There are space ships, some funky gadgets, and the suit, which actually is a gadget too, but sometimes seems to be more like a character in its own right. It has a lot of functions (heat regulation, clothing, …) which are operated by psi-abilities, and it is especially handy when the characters are in a tight spot: surely there is something the suit can do to help them. But I didn’t get a feel for the world the characters lived in. For me, is just was a combination of elements that you would expect in a science fiction novel but nothing more. And sadly, behaviour as a whole, not just Kahn’s and his people, seemed more archaic (I think about the Challenge here) than I expected. Or maybe it just that I hope for a more enlightened future for ourselves.

Last words: sometimes it’s good to have a tight book budget. Although you might still be tempted to get a novel by an author whose previous effort you didn’t enjoy, this is effectively countered by the tight budget and it might save you another rather frustrating reading experience if the two novels in question are anything alike. But then, there is the positive blog post about the other one …

Would I recommend this novel? No, though it might work for someone with a bit more tolerance towards Mary-Sue characters.

Would I read this novel again? No.

Grade: 2 / 5


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