I often try to explain my frame of mind going into a novel. In this case, between the Nebula awards’ consistent inconsistency, the fact that this is an entry in a sprawling space opera epic that I’ve never heard of, let alone read, and the harlequin romance cover and cover description…well, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. But, it kind of surprised me. Emphasis on "kind of."
In Asaro’s Skolian Empire books, ancient humans, with some mysterious alien intervention, colonized large segments of the galaxy. This empire was ruled over by genetically engineered psychics. It eventually collapsed, and by the time Earth caught up to it, the whole thing was reeling in the midst of an interstellar war.
I’m sure that background is apparent in the other novels, but in The Quantum Rose we start on the backwards planet of Balumil, where no one is aware of any of this. Kamoj is the beautiful young ruler of Argali, and she is betrothed to the cruel, older Jax Ironbridge. However, the strange masked foreigner Vyrl Lionstar makes a better offer and wins her away (brides on Balumil are more or less bought by the highest bidder). Kamoj is initially horrified, but she soon learns that Vyrl is not merely a rude foreigner, but a heroic exile from another planet. His clashes with the local culture are misunderstandings, and he is kind, handsome, and wants to treat Kamoj as an equal. He introduces Kamoj to technologies from computers to advanced medicine to spaceships. He does have his own troubled background; he’s been caught up in a conflict with the Earth Alliance, and it’s left psychological scars that have driven him to alcoholism and a distrust of his Skolian allies. Meanwhile, Ironbridge still fights for Kamoj, and she has to balance her sense of duty to her planet with her love of Vyrl and complex interstellar politics.
It does have some of the trappings of romance novels that the cover and description imply; I don’t have any particular problem with a romantic storyline, but the genre does have a set of tropes, some of which I find somewhat offensive, and others are just worn out. Here we do get the beautiful, damaged man, and the initial fear and roughness in a relationship that quickly turns to abiding love. There’s all sorts of sexual coercion here, and Kamoj is often a victim. We’re told that her people have been genetically engineered as compliant slaves, but watching her allow herself to be trampled for duty or love for most of the novel can get annoying. Also, the characters are a little too perfect in their beauty, heroism, self-sacrifice, and love for each other, not to mention their superhuman abilities. Hey, Vyrl can even dance like a god among men! Is their a term for this sort of romance-novel, perfect mate Mary Sueism?
All of this grated, but there was also plenty to like in the novel. Contact between advanced and primitive societies is old hat in sf, but Asaro handles it quite well here, slowly unveiling the Skolians to us at the same time she reveals them to Kamoj. The overall plot has a lot of momentum, and the scale of action gets bigger as the novel goes on, eventually moving to another planet. Despite their unrealistic perfection, the main characters are solid and interesting, and some of the side characters, especially the crew of the ship that brought Vyrl, are even more intriguing. Asaro has a PhD in math herself, and she keeps the technology interesting and familiar, while also drawing bigger metaphors from mathematical processes (“couple-channeled quantum-scattering”). I can’t say that I ever really grasped this aspect of the novel’s structure, but I do appreciate that Asaro tried something different.
All in all, I'd call this a mixed bag. When I wasn't rolling my eyes, annoyed by cliché, I was usually caught up in the book and enjoying myself. It gets a middling grade from me, but I'm rather glad that Nebula went with something different this year.