For eighty years after the Reptoid Wars, peace had reigned on New Earth. With King Dragomir and Queen Tora traveling off-world to create new alliances, they have left Terek in charge of the Mutant Council of Princes. He is the only human on the council and one of the few who is actually educated and allowed access to Mutant technology. When an alien spacecraft lands on his planet and seems to be in league with a potentially dangerous council defector, Terek, also known by his warrior name of Red Leopard, must lead a band of soldiers in a raid on their stronghold.
Galya is a Goddian princess who is considered defective by her people because of her human appearance and as such is not awarded the respect that she deserves from her ship's crew. She was sent to New Earth on a geological mission to find a rare red crystal with superior hyper-conductor properties. Galya was contacted while still far from the planet by a Mutant known as Yaman asking for her help. Little does she know that he holds the answers she is looking for, but is also a traitor to his people on New Earth.
When Terek and his warriors infiltrate the complex where Galya's ship has landed and are captured by the beautiful Godd, she challenges him to a duel. Their equal skill with a blade gives them a newfound mutual respect for one another, leading Galya to spare his life. She is fascinated by humans, Terek in particular, and hopes to create diplomatic ties with the Mutants in order to harvest the red crystal. Unfortunately, Yaman and Kyril, Galya's second in command, have other ideas. Their mutual wish to overtake the planet and reign supreme forces Terek and Galya into an alliance they would not have chosen in order to save the entire human race from enslavement or annihilation, and takes Terek on a journey to fulfill an ancient prophecy which foretold of him becoming the leader of his people.
Vijaya Schartz recently sent me an ARC copy of Red Leopard, the latest book in The Chronicles of Kassouk that was just released this month (April 2010). The story picks up eighty years after the end of White Tiger, the first book of the series. Throughout this time, peace has reigned on New Earth, but things get shaken up when a Goddian ship visits the planet on a geological mission. Their leader, the Goddian princess, Galya, is there to search for a rare red crystal which has prime hyper-conductor properties, but her mutinous crew has other ideas. They temporarily join forces with another vile betrayer on the planet who is a former member of the Mutant Princes Council. With the King and Queen off-planet on a diplomatic mission, the human, Terek, aka Red Leopard, is left in charge of the council, and in the process of fending off the invasion, he discovers his ultimate destiny as a legendary prophecy regarding his people begins to unfold. It all made for another good read in this fantasy romance series that is packed with action and adventure.
Terek and Galya were really two peas in a pod. Both are highly educated and trained as warriors for their respective races, but neither feels like they truly belong. Terek is the only human on the Princes Council and as such is resented by some Mutant members of the council who still believe themselves superior to humans. Because he was a rare human who was educated and allowed access to Mutant technology, Terek doesn't really fit in among his own people either. Little does he know that his future lies in an ancient prophecy surrounding Yalta, the land of his birth, deep in Zerker territory. I like that Terek is humble and doesn't take the prophecy nor his heritage lightly. He has worked hard to become the man he is and to temper his baser nature through meditation which keeps his genetic temperament in check. Galya is a Godd by birth but considered defective by her race, because she looks human and has a much shorter human life-span. She only received command of her ship because her father is a high-ranking Godd, and she is regarded as unfit for reproduction. Due to her perceived imperfections and the highly paternal culture of the Godds, most of her Goddian crew members don't think very highly of her, and her second in command actually resents her being in charge. To add fuel to the fire, once on New Earth, Galya exhibits an "abnormal" fascination with all things human and an empathy for their cause. I initially wasn't quite sure how the author would make a Godd character sympathetic, because they had, for the most part, been portrayed as oppressors in the first book. Galya's status as a misfit among her own people and her concern for humans which the other Godds didn't exhibit, left me having no trouble at all warming up to her. The only thing that gave me pause is that at one point she thinks of seducing Terek to get control of the red crystal mine, but at least she came to her senses pretty quickly and realized she loved him too much to take unfair advantage. Galya was also another one of Vijaya Schartz's heroines who is a tough warrior but has a sweetness about her that makes her easy to like.
Red Leopard has an extensive cast of secondary characters. King Dragomir and Queen Tora, the hero and heroine of White Tiger make an appearance and are mentioned throughout the story as still being the benevolent and respected rulers of Kassouk after all these years. Lady Leah, the Mutant healer who was also introduced in book #1 plays a fairly significant role in Red Leopard, but I did find myself wondering where her mate was as he didn't appear in this book. I couldn't help but like the straight-talking Zerker, Brock. Once he comes around to Terek's cause, he becomes his best friend and most ardent supporter which is something I thought Terek really needed. Then there are the evil baddies, General Kyril, the Godd who betrays Galya, and Yaman, the former Mutant Prince who has gone rogue. Both of them keep everyone one their toes. Last but not least was Terek's feline friend, Rascal, a red leopard of course. Once again, I loved the use of big cats who act as brave warriors alongside their human handlers. Unlike Dragomir and Tora in the first book, Terek doesn't have a psychic connection to Rascal, but the cat does have a very high level of intelligence and understanding. I loved how Rascal was Terek's faithful companion and defender throughout nearly the entire story.
I really like how Vijaya Schartz has taken all the different races and cultures in this series and mingled them together with each one playing an important role in the ultimate destiny of New Earth. Although some of the races (or at least certain individuals) try to subjugate others, she makes it clear that all of the people are important. At the end of White Tiger, she even foreshadowed a future for the formerly barbaric Zerkers which played out in Red Leopard. I've read enough of Ms. Schartz's work now to know that her writing style tends to focus more on the fantasy and action/adventure elements with the romance playing a role but not necessarily being front and center. That said, I thought that the romance was perhaps a little stronger in Red Leopard than it was in the first book. This time, the hero and heroine were in each others' company for most of the story which gave them more opportunity for their chemistry to develop, although their burgeoning love does still come about fairly quickly.
Overall, I really liked Red Leopard, but there were a few things that I thought could have been a little better. Although a lot of events take place within the narrative, the pacing of Red Leopard just didn't seem quite as tight and snappy as it was in White Tiger, and I thought the plot was a bit more predictable too. I didn't find myself sucked into the story quite as thoroughly or as eager to get back to it when I had to put it down as I was with the first one. It was also quite a bit longer as well, and I found myself loosing track of some of the finer plot points as the story progressed. I'm willing to admit though that it might have been my issue more than the book's, as I was pretty tired while reading certain parts of it and may not have been as focused as I could have been. There were a few minor areas where I thought that transitions could have been smoother and/or things explained better, such as where Galya's Goddian crew in the final chapters came from. I could surmise in context that they simply weren't all killed in battle like I initially thought and had resumed their positions, but that wasn't entirely clear to me. Since I was reading an unedited ARC, it's possible that some of these little things might have been cleaned up before the final copy was released. Overall, Red Leopard was another entertaining read in The Chronicles of Kassouk which I am enjoying so far. I'll be interested to see if the author gives readers any more clues about the ancient race that preceded both humans and Godds on New Earth, and I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing more of my favorite characters from the series when it continues in November 2010 with the release of Black Jaguar.
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