If we’re talking about publication order, Catch the Lightning is the second book in Catherine Asaro’s SKOLIAN EMPIRE series. It stands between Primary Inversion and that book’s direct sequel, The Radiant Seas. If you’re coming from reading Primary Inversion, I suggest you skip this one for now and read The Radiant Seas first… Actually, it’s not a bad idea to skip this one altogether…
Catch the Lightning is about a gorgeous teenager named Tina who lives in an alternate Los Angeles where the Mayan civilization didn’t die out yet. All of Tina’s family members are dead and she works as a waitress in an impoverished crime-ridden community. She wishes she could go to college, but she doesn’t have any money. What Tina does have is some of the psionic abilities of the far-future Ruby Throne Dynasty which rules the Skolian Empire. This is immediately sensed by Althor, a prince of the dynasty (nephew to Sauscony from Primary Inversion) who has accidentally ended up in the Los Angeles of Tina’s time (1987). When he and Tina meet, it’s love at first sight. But Althor, who isn’t really human, doesn’t belong in Tina’s time and when the authorities discover his spaceship orbiting Earth, Tina must help him escape. Fortunately, she has friends at Cal Tech.
In this story, which can stand alone, we learn more about the Skolian Empire and its possible relationship with the ancient Mayan civilization. We also see more of the evil Trader civilization which is ruled by sadists, and a space colony that exhibits futuristic agriculture and medicine. Though I like the technology, the gadgets, and the ideas about relativity and space travel, the story gets too techy and teachy in places, especially when the topic is genetics. I like genetics, but some of the mini-lectures about cloning, mutations, genetic drift, inbreeding, and genetic engineering were either too basic, too repetitive, or just too long. And there is a lot of technobabble about the gadgets.
I already told you that I thought I was going to love the SKOLIAN EMPIRE series because of its mix of space opera, hard science and romance, but I didn’t because of the insipid insta-love and the many small plot problems that added up to make it hard to believe in the story. Unfortunately, Catch the Lightning has the same problems. The romance is, again, based on the fact that these two people (well, one of them isn’t a really human) are beautiful and have mind-melding genetic material that makes them irresistible to each other. Nothing else. They’re in bed together before they know the most basic facts about each other. He is mostly a robot, and because of her empathic gift, Tina can hear computer prompts while they’re being intimate. Commands like “upload,” “download,” “carrier attenuated,” and “return.” That is sooooo not sexy. (This actually could have been funny, but it wasn’t played that way.)
There are also numerous little plot problems that tripped up my suspension of disbelief, but it’s hard to talk about those without spoiling the plot. The prose is fine when Asaro is in action mode, but when she gets creative her figures of speech are uninspiring:
Despite her wariness, her curiosity made a bouquet of flowers, each bloom giving off a different scent…
Heather’s fascination curled around him like a heavy-leafed vine.
I don’t even know what that means.
Anna Fields narrated the audio version of Catch the Lightning. I like her voice for Tina and the other humans in the story, but the voice for Althor, the leading man, and some of the other off-Earth characters, are unpleasantly robotic, and I doubt that was Asaro’s intention. Let’s just say that Althor is definitely not the sexy male lead that I think he was supposed to be. Part of that is Asaro’s fault and part is Fields’. (Interestingly, Catch the Lightning won the Sapphire Award for Best Science Fiction Romance in 1998… I wonder who the other contenders were.)
So far my experience with the SKOLIAN EMPIRE series hasn’t been great, but I’m going to press on because there’s so much potential here. (And I already have the audiobooks loaded onto my phone.) I feel like I should be loving it.