Heart Mate, by Robin D. Owens
The first in the Heart series set on the planet Celta, Heart Mate was also Ms Owens debut novel. Seven more books in the series have been written since its publication in 2001 (Heart Change, the eighth title, will be released in November). A wonderful blend of fantasy and science fiction serve as background to this romance.
The back cover blurb (from the 2006 reissue)
All his life, Rand T’Ash has looked forward to meeting his HeartMate, with whom he could begin a family. Once a street tough, now a respected nobleman and artisan, he has crafted the perfect HeartGift, which, in the custom of the psychically gifted population of the planet Celta, is the way a man finds—and attracts—his wife…
Danith Mallow is irresistibly drawn to the magnificent necklace on display in T’Ash’s shop, but she is wary of its creator, despite an overpowering attraction. In a world where everyone is defined by their psychic ability, Danith has little, placing her at the opposite end of the social spectrum from T’Ash. But T’Ash refuses to accept her rejection and sees it as a challenge instead. They are HeartMates, but can T’Ash persuade his beloved to accept her destiny by his side?
Quick blurb quibble: the people of Celta can—and more often than not, do—marry people who are not their HeartMates. That is, in fact, one of the issues that fuel the conflict between Danith and T’Ash.
Okay, on to the review, shall we?
The world building is intricate and damn near flawless. Every magical or technical object or activity is mentioned within context, so that we are shown what they are, how they are used, why they are needed, etc. On this planet, where most people have at least some affinity for magic (called Flair), the social hierarchy revolves about the descendants of the first colonists and those whose potential for Flair has been realized.
The social gap between this aristocracy and the commoners is not abrupt, for there are many different kinds of Flair and a whole spectrum of power, from the incredibly gifted to Nulls—those unfortunate few who are born completely devoid of magic. Nonetheless, there is a gap and there are extremes.
Downwind is the part of Druida City where the poorest and least gifted live. Very few people are ever able to escape there. T’Ash has done so only because he was born to one of the First Families; hence, as he grew up his powerful Flair developed to its full potential. His years growing up in Downwind, as well as his determination to reclaim his birth right after witnessing the murder of his entire family and the destruction of his legacy, have made him unyielding. He is slow to trust, and extremely self-contained. Other than his Familiar, Zanth, there is only one man he considers a friend. Holm, heir to the GrandHouse of Holly.
It is understandable then, that upon meeting the woman who is his HeartMate—the other half of his soul, his future and reason for being—he doesn’t understand that she might need anything or anyone other than he himself, his Familiar, his heritage and his future.
Danith is a commoner. Orphaned as a young child, her childhood and youth were not as traumatic as T’Ash’s but they left their own mark on her psyche. In her social circles people have just a bit of Flair, HeartMates are a legend, and the nobility is as distant as the original Earth. And she likes it that way. She craves the security of a large Family and the stability of easy companionship. What she doesn’t want is to be beholden to a powerful noble, nor to be trapped by all the obligations that a high social position entails.
The external conflict between them, that of the difference between their social and financial stations, is further complicated by the internal conflict each of them faces. Danith is afraid of change. She clings to what she perceives as security and for quite a long while refuses to acknowledge that such “security” is more than likely to make her miserable in the long run. For his part, T’Ash refuses to bend, even an inch. He demands that Danith accept the HeartBond without giving anything of himself, afraid that she may refuse him forever if she gets to know him first.
As I type this, it may seem that both these characters are drawn a little as stubborn teenagers, both blind to any nuances in the other. It is not so. Ms Owens has made them complex people whose struggles are convincing. They exist in a world that both fuels and soothes their fears and concerns—if only they let themselves grow out of their fear.
Happily, as events unfold and both characters interact with others, they become increasingly self-aware, so that when the resolution comes it is believable and satisfying.
There are a number of secondary characters, some of which are very intriguing even though they have very little space on the page—a Null, both sons and the GreatLord of the GreatHouse of Holly, the GreatLord of the House of Ivy, Mitchella and Triff Clover, and more. My favorite secondary character, though, is Zanth.
T’Ash’s Familiar, Zanth is both a cat and a magical being. As the latter, he can communicate telepathically with T’Ash—and later with Danith. He understands complex concepts, such as bargaining with his FamMan for what he wants. At the same time, Zanth is utterly a cat. His speech and thought patterns are essentially feline. As far as Zanth is concerned, everything revolves around him. As long as he has food and shelter, “Life is good.”
Beyond the characters, I cannot say enough about the world-building… so I won’t.
Heart Mate gets 8.5 out of 10, and I have the rest of the series in my sights now.