The Interplanetary Trade Coalition has not been welcomed with open arms by the Sha Empire. Isolated at the far edge of a distant system, the Sha are distrustful of outsiders, and previous I.P.T.C. diplomatic missions have ended with members imprisoned or dead. But, if pushed enough, the I.P.T.C. will overrun the planet to take what it wants. The situation is already precarious when student linguist Taji Ameyo is conscripted to translate for the newest I.P.T.C. ambassador. Taji, used to being alone, has never learned to hide his heart or his opinions, and the controlled Sha nobility regard little, outspoken human Taji with fascination, calling him shehzha.
Mysterious, coveted figures, so devoted to their lovers that pleasing them is a test of Shavian honor, shehzha are usually kept out of public view. Taji is a nobody, hardly alluring, and yet it’s not long before his runaway mouth gets him entangled in imperial politics, and he has no one rely on but the soldiers assigned to protect him—one soldier, more than the others.
At the mercy of both a greedy trade coalition and a proud empire, Taji has to determine what it means to be shehzha, while surrounded by ambitious noble families and a sharp-eyed emperor, and hopefully learn enough about the Sha to keep him and everyone he cares about alive.
I’ve read a couple of R. Cooper’s books and found them to be enjoyable, but I had no idea she was capable of a novel like this. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read something this good from the self-publish/small press M/M community before, except for Klune’s Murmuration, and this one might be better. Taji From Beyond the Rings is a rigorous, anthropological science-fiction romance that repackages radical ideas of sex and gender first found in works like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in the form of an accessible genre novel. The Sha society depicted in Taji is creative, consistent, and believable, and so are the interactions between them and the I.P.T.C. emissaries who Taji is a member of. Cooper uses the complex, perilous challenge of learning and navigating a foreign culture as a versatile plot device that grants the story natural momentum, something many romance writers struggle with as they try to force their plots to replicate expected genre conventions. The linguistic mystery of shehzha, an enigmatic, untranslatable rank in Shavian culture, was particularly engaging. The experience of constantly redefining the term as Taji discovers new information reproduces for the reader the experience that Taji is having in the story. Like him, we can only speculate on the meaning of Sha words and symbols and adapt when we find out we’re wrong. Readers less familiar with science fiction as a genre may find this experience disconcerting at first, but becomes easier to process with time.
Interwoven between all this detailed and complex science fiction is an interspecies romance I can only describe as “mushy.” There’s lots of pining and angst, stoic handsome space marines, several explicit sex scenes, the works. But where these elements might feel melodramatic or just plain silly in a typical romance novel, they’re all quite natural in the context of Cooper’s extensive worldbuilding. One Amazon review wrote, “Without the author’s storytelling skills and imaginative vision, this book could easily have been shelved under the overheated and unhinged section for teenage wet dreams.” The reviewer’s not wrong, Cooper is working with some very delicate sexual tropes that before now I would have said could not be done tastefully, yet there they are in all their erotic and explicit glory. I’ll admit, some of them made me a little uncomfortable, but that’s only because they challenge values our culture holds in high esteem, like agency, independence, and self-reliance. Through the Sha, Cooper convincingly argues for the beauty and bravery to be found in relinquishing those ideals in order to become closer with another. As I write, it occurs to me that this is the principle behind BDSM, though I don’t think this particular story could be described as that. I enthusiastically recommend Taji From Beyond the Rings to fans of both science fiction and romance as an exceptional member of both genres.