This review is based on an eARC sent to me by the publisher.
The Premise: Elizabeth Cole was starting a new job as a psychologist on the newly discovered world of Ardagh 1, also known as "the ghost planet". This is a place with a remarkable phenomenon - everyone who goes there starts being followed around by a manifestation of a deceased person they once knew. Why the local aliens have chosen to do this is a great mystery, but to cope, settlers have set up the Ghost Protocol. The protocol is not to acknowledge the ghosts whatsoever. Interaction has had adverse effects and colonists find that ghosts weaken if ignored for long enough. When Elizabeth lands on the planet she is apprehensive about what will attach herself to her, and when she meets with her supervisor Dr. Grayson Murphy, her first thought is to wonder if he's human. He is, but Elizabeth is in for a shock - she's the one that's the 'ghost'! Her transport to the planet crashed, killing all aboard. Now Elizabeth is faced with the alarming prospect of knowing she's 'real' but being treated as if she's not. She has to fight for herself and against the Ghost Protocol, while being tethered to the man responsible for it.
My Thoughts: I'm not sure how long Ghost Planet has been on my radar, but I've been following the author's blog since sometime last year. Its premise just got me aflutter: a planet where everyone has ghost following them around? And the heroine is surprised to discover she's a ghost too? And there's chemistry with the guy she's linked with? AND Linnea Sinclair calls it a "fresh and fascinating take on the human-alien problem"? Uh, yeah, needless to say, I had pre-ordered this long before I was contacted about a review.
The tarmac was deserted. Foggy and disoriented, I wondered how long I’d been standing there, listening to the evergreens groan in the wind and dreading my first encounter on this new world. Would it be human or alien?
I breathed in the crisp, impossibly clean air, trying to clear my head. My gaze traveled around the landing pad hemmed in by towering conifers, and came to rest on the transport terminal, oblong and silent under a slate-gray sky.
I had the unsettling feeling I was the only person on the planet—Ardagh 1, more commonly referred to as “the ghost planet” by people on Earth. Inexplicable things happened here. The planet itself was a study in the impossible.
Finally the terminal doors slid open, and a figure stepped out onto the tarmac. Half a dozen others spilled out behind him, and a transport whined into view, landing about thirty meters away.
The presence of the other passengers eased my sense of isolation. But that first man out of the building—he was headed right for me. My heart beat out a warning, and my mind snapped back to the original question: Human or alien?
“Elizabeth?” He raised his dark eyebrows, and my gaze locked on his startling eyes. Piercing, round, and the lightest shade of blue, like sky behind a veil of cloud—clean cloud, not the brown smudges that passed for clouds back on Earth. Something about him tugged at my memory, but I found this the opposite of reassuring.
“Yes?” I answered, uneasy. If he wasn’t human, I was minutes on the planet and already breaking the rules. It was dangerous to talk to them. There were institutions back on Earth devoted to caring for people who’d done so. I’d met some of those people.
I think my instinct for what I like served me well with this one. I loved the concept that promised some interesting world-building, but because this is also Romance, there's a burgeoning relationship for me to enjoy too. I like a balance between these two things, and Ghost Planet does a good job of it. I especially liked this early on, when Elizabeth has to adjust to her new reality. What first struck me was that although she was on a new planet, far from Earth, her work as a psychologist was something relatable and not high-tech or military. She was a middle-class woman, without any special combat skills, just her degree. And because this was told from her point of view, having the 'ghost' tell the her side of story was a nice spin on the extra-terrestrial encounter trope: no one knows exactly what she is, but then, neither does she. Until she's told she's a ghost, Elizabeth doesn't realize anything is wrong, and her shock and confusion at having her most basic identity questioned is good stuff. The irony is that the human Elizabeth was interested in the 'ghosts' from an academic standpoint before traveling to Ardagh 1. Now her experience with the Ghost Protocol is much more personal and her questions about her existence much more pressing.
At first it seems like Elizabeth's unlucky to be attached to her would-be-supervisor Murphy. He's the psychologist responsible for helping the settlers cope and he's told them rejecting their ghosts is the best thing to do. But before he realized what she was, they were enjoying each other's company. When Elizabeth turns out to be a ghost, it's a surprise for both of them. So Murphy is kind to her and conflicted about his own protocol. Their relationship mirrors the people on both sides of the equation. On one side, there are the humans, wary of a phenomenon that has no explanation, on the other, there's the 'ghosts', struggling to be acknowledged.
Because any interaction with Elizabeth is verboten, the relationship took some time to develop, and I enjoyed seeing how it happened despite the rules against it. Elizabeth's persistence and Murphy's empathy were characteristics that brought them closer, but the connection they forged from quiet proximity had it's own power. The romance takes a natural path there that I liked, and Elizabeth and Murphy make a compatible couple. The one quibble I had, was that once they hit a turning point in their relationship, something went away. I think that that suddenly the discord came from sources external to the relationship, and these two were very harmonious. I suppose at that point they had enough to deal with.
Anyway, this is a story with a healthy amount of romance but has a plot that doesn't just evolve around that. There are some suspenseful, action-adventure aspects to the story and Elizabeth and Murphy have to face several threats to their lives. I can't really go into these without spoiling the story, but I was impressed by how thoughtfully Ghost Planet explores the the 'ghost' concept in its storytelling. It's a concept that's also a mystery, and thankfully the author doesn't leave the reader with a lot of hanging questions. It explores a lot of the questions I had and organically integrated the answers into the plot. For example, I'd wondered about other 'ghosts' and what they were like, what Elizabeth could do and not do as a ghost, what would happen if she was strengthened by Murphy rather than weakened, what happened if she tired to separate from him, and so on. I even felt like I got something of a satisfactory explanation for why the 'ghosts' were there in the first place, or at least a working theory that made sense to me, by the end of the story.
Overall: I'm excited about other people discovering this author. I thought Ghost Planet was very enjoyable science fiction romance with a heroine who is more regular girl than action hero, and a setting that feels very unique (and not just for not being on a spaceship). I really liked the thoughtful way in which the 'ghost' concept was explored in this story, and I also liked how I was engaged by scenes that weren't all about action. Fisher made relationship dynamics and the fight for dominance (or just acknowledgement) between personalities just as important as physical fights for control. I'd recommend Ghost Planet for fans of Sara Creasy and Linnea Sinclair.
P.S. As far as I can tell, this is a standalone (!)