Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

Alien in a black exoskeleton against a blurry sci-fi cityscape in purples and blues and redsWhy I read it:  I am a subscriber to Ann Aguirre’s newsletter. Even though I received this in serial format, I wanted to wait to read the whole thing because I’m like that. So I bought it. It seems to be Amazon only at this point.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  He’s awkward. He’s adorable. He’s alien as hell.

Zylar of Kith B’alak is a four-time loser in the annual Choosing. If he fails to find a nest guardian this time, he’ll lose his chance to have a mate for all time. Desperation drives him to try a matching service but due to a freak solar flare and a severely malfunctioning ship AI, things go way off course. This ‘human being’ is not the Tiralan match he was looking for.

She’s frazzled. She’s fierce. She’s from St. Louis.

Beryl Bowman’s mother always said she’d never get married. She should have added a rider about the husband being human. Who would have ever thought that working at the Sunshine Angel daycare center would offer such interstellar prestige? She doesn’t know what the hell’s going on, but a new life awaits on Barath Colony, where she can have any alien bachelor she wants.

They agree to join the Choosing together, but love is about to get seriously strange.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  This was such a fun book! Zylar is a very beta hero – his chitin (he’s a kind of insectoid alien so has what I imagine to be a thick outer shell like a cockroach’s but stronger?) might be hard but inside he’s all marshmallow. He has low self-esteem because he’s not very attractive. Barathi are prized for their colours and Zylar is a dull brown and he doesn’t stand out in a crowd. He has also always been outshone by his nest-mate (aka sibling) Ryzven (who is an asshole). It is not ever made clear just why Ryzven hated Zylar so much and that is one of my few criticisms of the story.

Anyway, Zylar effectively gets lost on his way to meet his online mate-to-be and ends up on Earth, mistaking Beryl Bowman for his intended. He also mistakes (not without reason) her for being in need of rescue and assumes her reaction to him is more about trauma than what it actually is. So in order to keep her safe he kidnaps her and takes her with him back to Barath. Unfortunately, the AI who got him lost in the first place has had a brain-scramble and cannot find the coordinates for Earth anymore so once they’re gone, there’s no way back.

Beryl has no-one on Earth really to miss her so she quickly decides to cast her lot with Zylar and see what happens. She is very much a “make the best of things” girl. Sure, she adapted very quickly but that’s the nature of the book and one of the conceits of the story that the reader has to buy into to enjoy it. I did.

At the time Beryl was taken she was with her dog, Snaps. Zylar takes both of them and uses some alien tech to enable them to communicate which means TALKING DOG. OMG. Snaps was hilarious. Even apart from what turned out to be a very sweet romance, the book is worth the price for Snaps alone.

I decided not to think too much about the whole alien/human sex thing and just go with it. Zylar and Beryl do, eventually (and extremely consensually) have a very satisfying sex life but if I let my brain think about insectoid aliens and interspecies sex too much I may not have been able to cope. This is a fun fiction story and I just went with it.

Even though there is a lot of humour and much fun, there are also some darker aspects to the book and readers ought not mistake Strange Love for entirely fluffy. There are some sad and shocking parts (including violence) to the story (Ryzven is a real jerk). The world is a fairly brutal one and sometimes the good guys do what could be considered immoral things to win. I was okay with it in the circumstances.

The romance is very sweet. It’s sexy too (if you don’t mind the whole alien thing) but mostly it was just sweetly delightful. Zylar and Beryl just find their perfect match in each other and as Zylar sees himself through Beryl’s eyes, he begins to see himself as worthwhile.

“…I enjoy the way you respond to me. It’s beautiful that it feels effortless.” He paused, seeming to choose his words with care. “I have never pleased anyone without trying. Never felt that who I am is enough. You are a miracle, Beryl Bowman. My miracle.”

What else? The worldbuilding is fairly scant and I’m very keen to read more. I’m so curious about Barathi society and would happily devour more books set on that planet. The next one in the series has already begun as a newsletter serial and it features Helix (the AI who got Zylar into this mess in the first place) and while it is unlikely – because reasons – to be set on Barath at all, it promises to be a lot of fun as he comes to grip with those pesky emotions.

In many ways Strange Love is a “popcorn” book. Yes, it has its heavy  moments but for the most part it’s just a good time with underdog characters who (of course) prevail. I pretty much loved it.

Grade: B+

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