I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Master trader Er Thom knows the local custom of Liaden is to be matched with a proper bride, and provide his prominent clan Korval with an heir. Yet his heart is immersed in another universe, influenced by another culture, and lost to a woman not of his world. And to take a Terran wife such as scholar Anne Davis is to risk his honor and reputation. But when he discovers that their brief encounter years before has resulted in the birth of a child, even more is at stake than anyone imagined. Now, an interstellar scandal has erupted, a bitter war between two families-galaxies apart-has begun, and the only hope for Er Thom and Anne is a sacrifice neither is prepared to make...
Local Custom has been described as a Regency romance in space. I would have to agree with that assessment. The romance between Er Thom and Anne is the major plot of the book, highlighting the differences between the two. They are not only of different social classes, but from different planetary societies. It is very much a novel of manners, as Anne tries to deal with the very honour-bound and visciously polite Liaden society that Er Thom inhabits. Think “going to Japan” on a grand scale—meeting people requires an appropriate bow, the inclination of which depends on the status of the person you are meeting relative to yourself. Add to that numerous levels of speech--high, low, familial, etc.--and the pitfalls are treacherous. Plus, like many if not all societies, outsiders are not desirable as marriage partners for one’s children. The barriers between Er Thom and Anne are substantial to say the least.
Anne at least has the advantage of being familiar with Liaden language, as she is a comparative linguistics scholar and has specialized in Liaden literature. She has also produced a son, Shan, for a family line that is desperate for children. You would think that both of these attributes would make her a desirable daughter-in-law, but that would remove the major conflicts of the story line. In true romance novel style, she is too tall, too different, too foreign—too difficult for the elder generation to accept.
Also true to romance norms, there is miscommunication. Er Thom assumes that his society is clear to Anne and although she realizes that she’s not fully comprehending the implications of their actions, she doesn’t feel safe asking for the required clarification.
I was reminded strongly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books about Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan (Shards of Honor and Barrayar). There is a similar flavour to the romantic problems, as both Cordelia and Anne struggle to comprehend a foreign culture, deal with prejudice, and somehow salvage a relationship of great importance.
Although I’ve never been an ardent fan of the romance genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this, my first dip into the Liaden universe. It is book number 231 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.