Strange Love, by Ann Aguirre

3 Jun
Cover for STRANGE LOVE by Ann Aguirre, showing an armored figure silhouetted in profile over a luminous backdrop of buildings and other urban structures; upon examination, the buildings aren't your usual Earth architecture, and neither is the armored figure.

It’s been a minute since I last reviewed any of Ann Aguirre’s books 1 , but I remain very much a fan of her work, both writing voice and worldbuilding.

This novel, the first in what is now the Galactic Love trilogy, is an absolute and utter delight.

Reader beware: there’s some cursing, an underhanded asshole gets his comeuppance in a very final way, and there’s on page sex. With an alien. Also, a truckload of explicit consent.

Strange Love, by Ann Aguirre

Beryl Bowman was having a “life of quiet desperation” (student debt, no meaningful relationships, low wage job, a somewhat serious drinking problem) when Zylar showed up, and things just got a lot more interesting from there–because he has his own problems waiting at home.

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.

I love stories where people who don’t particularly find each other physically attractive fall in love with each other 2, and Ms Aguirre does this particularly well here. At the beginning, Beryl and Zylar find each other just short of repulsive; it’s not just that they are different species, but that in her eyes, he’s closer to some sort of insect than anything else, and from his point of view…well, the words “lower primate” are used at one point.

I particularly like that their differences go well beyond, “the other one looks weird” or the (hard to pull-off, often gimmicky), use of stilted grammar to indicate alien thought patterns. Instead, it’s shown in the way each interprets the other’s actions and gestures.

There’s a subconscious assumption by many U.S. writers that cursing only needs a literal translation of words, when in fact the whole structure of what constitutes a swear is informed by history and culture 3. The exact same word, used by two people from different cultures ostensibly speaking the same language, means entirely different things to each. Ms Aguirre never loses sight of this quirk of language and communication.

Like this exchange, after Zylar implants Beryl with what is essentially a translator chip:

“Fuck it,” Beryl said, “Out-bonding it is. Let’s see where this goes.”

* * *

Zylar could not possibly have understood the female correctly.

Her words registered as: “Copulation! Let’s join and find out how this works.” Surely she didn’t mean to mate with him before all the rituals and proprieties were observed? But perhaps that was her people’s way, a method of testing a prospective partner to see whether he could perform adequately. I’m not ready for this.

(end of chapter 1, beginning of chapter 2)

Zylar is just a lovely person; he’s considerate, honest, generous, and has managed to survive a rather bleak upbringing to become someone with grit and integrity. His insecurities are endearing to Beryl, who has plenty of her own, and her perception of him as a capable, intelligent, and all-around good person, helps Zylar grow in a very organic way.

As for Beryl, at first it seemed that she accepted the whole outrageous situation just a bit too easily, but it soon becomes obvious that she’s been in “fake it ’till you make it” mode for most of her life: you just keep going, because if you ever stop swimming, you sink to the bottom. Sure, this is more complicated than a court appearance for drunkenly disturbing the peace, and a lot longer-lasting than some community service, but curling up into a ball and screaming herself hoarse will solve nothing, so, here we are.

Beryl never takes herself too seriously, managing to find humor even when she’s scared off her head–which is something I admire in others and wish I was better at. Basically, she’s resilient as hell.

The worldbuilding is very well done; there’s enough of the thoroughly alien culture to set the stage and the conflict, without getting lost in the weeds of technology, biology, history, etc. It helps that we learn the complexities of the world through both characters’ internal dialogue; from Beryl’s part, it’s all wonder and perfectly understandable exhaustion. (Seriously, if you’ve ever traveled abroad, you know how tiring it is to try to figure out even the basics everyone else takes for granted.)

Meanwhile, Zylar trying to explain his world, his culture, his family, and the more pressing issue of the Choosing, to someone who, up to their meeting, had never seriously entertained the idea of extraterrestrial sentient beings…It is, unsurprisingly, complicated.

I mentioned at the top that there’s explicit consent, and this is very important for the development of the relationship, and, later, as a plot point. I do not mean just sexual consent, by the way. Ms Aguirre treats consent as a given; both characters check in with each other frequently, naturally, and this deepens their relationship beautifully.

My only quibble is that it all rather quickly; from meeting to declaration of love on both parts it’s probably less than two weeks (time is somewhat fuzzy). It may be argued that Beryl is latching on to Zylar out of trauma and fear rather than actual love, given that without him she’s stranded without resources in an alien world, but the writing works for me so that her feelings come across as real and grounded.

The secondary characters, beyond Zylar’s rather dysfunctional family, include a talking dog, a self-aware AI, and a non-Barathi alien that resembles a plant, and honestly, I want more of them all. (Helix, the AI, is one of the main characters in Love Code, the second book in the trilogy.)

Strange Love gets a 9.25 out of 10.

* * * *

1 I was Ms Aguirre’s virtual assistant for under a year, over a decade ago, and I have beta read a few books for her. I have never reviewed a book I beta read (hers or anyone else’s).

2 Radiance is a perennial favorite for this reason.

3 This is a huge pet peeve of mine. A well known author at one point uses (paraphrasing), “he didn’t mind taking the Lord’s name in vain” to indicate that someone was cursing in Mexican Spanish–a culture in which we do not, ever, use religious symbolism as swears.

4 Responses to “Strange Love, by Ann Aguirre”

  1. Lori 03/06/2022 at 1:56 PM #

    I lovedlovedloved this book. The world building was wonderfully done, not a single info dump. The bad guy was deliciously bad. And the sex! I mean… really? It was good. Who knew giant insects have it going on?

    Gads, I have to reread this. It was such a great book.

    • azteclady 03/06/2022 at 2:07 PM #

      IT IS!

      Also: “Yeah, I taught my lover how to masturbate.What about it?” is just ::chef kiss:: perfect.

  2. Jen 07/06/2022 at 8:43 PM #

    Oh my!! What a wonderful review. I listened to the audiobook when it was first released and forgot how much I enjoyed this one, for many of the reasons you listed. I also enjoyed the second one, which has a direct connection to this book. Ms. Aguirre does a fabulous job of creating a connection between two completely opposite, seemingly incompatible souls. And I adored Snaps. 🙂

    • azteclady 07/06/2022 at 9:29 PM #

      Thank you! (Snaps was the very best of good dogs, indeed!)

      And yes, Ms Aguirre has a gift for worldbuilding and characterization.

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