Review – Ice Red (Once Upon a Red World #1) by Jael Wye


Publisher: Carina Press
Publish Date: Out Now (September 30, 2013)
How I got this book: eARC from publisher via NetGalley

Mirror, mirror, full of stars,
Who will claim the throne of Mars?

The princess: Engineer Bianca Ross, heir to a megacorporation and the Mars elevator, needs to acquire a mine on the surface to secure her place in the company. All that stands in her way is the mine’s charming owner, Cesare Chan.

The evil stepmother: Victoria Ross is plotting to gain control of Mars. She plans to assassinate Bianca and seduce Cesare to further her goals, and Bianca’s trip is the perfect opportunity.

The charming prince: Cesare shouldn’t get involved. Bianca’s visit could reveal the escaped slaves he’s hiding at his mine, but he can’t ignore a damsel in distress—especially one as beautiful as Bianca.

Alone, neither would stand a chance against Victoria. But together, they could rewrite a tale that’s meant to end with Bianca’s blood.

*blurb from Goodreads

***Possible trigger warning: this story contains a singular rape-themed scene where the female villain drugs and tortures the hero***

Ice Red, the first book in the Once Upon a Red World series, is a SciFi Romance loosely following a Snow White construct. The story takes place on Mars, some 300-plus years into the future. A Mars elevator and orbiting space station have been developed to enable more efficient travel from the planet’s surface to awaiting spaceships. Bianca’s father, the creator of the Mars space elevator, is about to embark a spaceship bound for Earth so he can help the Earther’s complete their elevator project according to his specs. This leaves Bianca’s step-mother, Victoria, in charge and forces Bianca in a position of having to prove her worth. Bianca is sent to the surface of Mars to complete the merger of a mine that Victoria wants to acquire for StarLine, only the owner, Cesare, isn’t interested in selling. He has secrets to protect in the mine and people’s lives on the line and isn’t about to let his mine fall into StarLine’s hands.

I had a difficult time settling into this story. The narrative switched locations and POVs which affected the pace and made the pieces of the story slow to come together. Just as I was beginning to follow a character, the narrative would switch over to someone else in a different location. This made it hard for me to connect to the characters in the beginning and to really get a sense of where I was within the setting. The pace evened out as the story developed and the main characters came on scene together, but the approach used to introduce the story elements and the characters felt a bit choppy to me.

I found the story concept intriguing and enjoyed imagining life on Mars and the slow evolutionary process of making Mars habitable. I could tell a lot of thought went into the worldbuilding with descriptions of the various types of functional clothing, the different habsuites and locales, the rugged terrain, and various modes of transportation. Wye also took into account how Mars would affect the subsequent generations who were born there. As a result, native Martians took on their own unique characteristics. She also included social elements to the story rooted in the colonization and history of Mars and the impact that had on the current times. The writing style had an ease and overall smooth flow with a good balance between descriptive writing and keeping the action within the individual scenes moving forward. However, when it came to the characters and their feelings and motivations, I felt the narrative skewed a bit into Telling which detracted from my experience of the characters on the whole. I couldn’t help but see echoes of Firefly in the dialogue with the inclusion of Chinese phrases into the everyday English vernacular in addition to some cowboy/outback references. Although, here, the setting stayed primarily futuristic and didn’t have that full-out Western vibe.

While many of the SciFi elements worked for me, the romance aspect did not. The romance began with insta-lust attraction that both Bianca and Cesare tried to deny. Bianca tried to maintain her “Ice Princess” composure while Cesare kept everything fast and loose. They didn’t engage in meaningful conversations at an intimate level as each stayed focused on their respective goals. As a result, I didn’t feel connected to a growing personal relationship. They would slake their physical attraction and then go back to being distrustful of the other. What intimacy transpired, happened only within the inner dialogue of the respective character but it was never shared. All the romantic angst could have been resolved with a single, simple conversation, but neither one of them had the courage to be vulnerable and honest. Bianca seemed to purposefully avoid actual intimacy so as not to appear “clingy or needy” as if that made her strong. But it had the opposite affect on me. It takes courage to be vulnerable. You can be honest about your feelings, stand up for what you want and still walk away if you’re offered less than you need. That’s strength. Meanwhile, Cesare wouldn’t know intimacy if it smacked him in the face. So, in the end, the romantic tension felt contrived and the characters didn’t establish a romantic foundation that transcended physical attraction. I think I would have preferred that these two took their time in establishing a romance rather than forcing something into the confines of this story’s short timeline. Additionally, something about the language used to describe the smex scenes didn’t resonate with me: “his rod,” “her hot tab,” and mining terminology puns such as “his jack” or “jacking” and “[wanting] to drill you.” Maybe if I’d bought into their relationship and felt grounded to the characters I would have minded the language less. I’m not sure. But whatever the reason, it pulled me out of the scene every time.

This story had great potential for a truly evil villainess. Initially, Victoria’s character intrigued me with her blend of warped power trip, political maneuvering, hidden agendas, narcissism and just downright evilness. However, she didn’t maintain this interesting dynamic as she devolved into a rather two-dimensional sadistic megalomaniac with no agenda other than to grab power for power’s sake. By the end of the story she felt more caricature than character. I really, really did not like the end scenes between Victoria and Cesare. I don’t like rape-themed scenes. I especially don’t like it when drugs are used to cause the victim to respond against their will. And I really don’t like it when the villain uses it to torment whoever it is they are holding captive. Victoria drugged and tortured Cesare and taunted him about raping him, but was ultimately thwarted from completing the physical act of rape. However, it was uncomfortable and I didn’t like reading about it. I’ve come across this scenario a number of times in different books and I don’t understand its appeal as a plot device. By this time in the story, I had already lost interest in Victoria’s character and this scene confirmed why. I really couldn’t see the point of it all except as shock value. It did nothing to further Victoria’s storyline other than to highlight she had no real agenda–at least not one with any lasting impact on the series.

This story incorporated some vague references to an Aurora Project run by scientists working on rather questionable experiments. I suspect this group may be featured as the series progresses, however I couldn’t help but wonder if this story would have been stronger if the Aurora Project had featured more prominently. It might have given more depth to Victoria’s character and given her a purpose beyond her megalomaniacal personality. I did, however, find the “ghost” scene odd. It seemed so randomly placed. Up to this point, the narrative hadn’t provided any hint or connection to the “ghost” and then after that snippet scene, never referred to it again. It felt like an unanchored scene set adrift within the narrative. I think I know how the “ghost” might have tied into the conclusion of this story, but since it was never brought up, I can’t be sure. Which makes me wonder why it was there at all?

There were areas where this story worked for me, and others that left me wanting. Issues with the romance aside, Bianca was a capable, intelligent heroine who stayed focused on her goals and stepped up to the challenges in front of her. Even though she often wanted Cesare to come to her rescue, that didn’t stop her from taking action on her own. Cesare grew on me as I learned more about him. His character went deeper than first glances would show and it turned out he had an altruistic heart even if he had difficulty showing it. There was some stereotyping of villains in this story and an overall lack of depth to their characters. The worldbuilding was well done and once the main characters came together, the pace of the story began to smooth out a bit as the action ramped up. A solid foundation to the romance as well as more depth given to the primary villain would have made for a stronger story overall.

I give Ice Red a C+.

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