JOINT REVIEW: Shield of Winter by Nalini Singh
READERS PLEASE NOTE: This review touches on the topics of depression and suicidal ideation, and in the comment thread below, these topics are elaborated on at length and explicitly, and genocide is also discussed.
Janine: Both Jennie and I read an ARC of Nalini Singh’s Shield of Winter at roughly the same time, so we decided to review it together in a discussion format. But first, a plot summary.
I’ve waited a long time to read a full length novel about one of the Arrows again – Judd’s book, Caressed by Ice, is probably my favorite in this series (I’ve read it three times and I rarely reread novels). Ten books later comes Shield of Winter, the thirteenth book in the Psy/Changeling series, whose hero is the tormented Vasic.
Vasic’s past is dark indeed. Recruited into the lethal Arrow squad at age four, he was made into a killer against his will using pain-inducing brainwashing techniques. In Vasic’s adult years the former leader of the Arrows, Ming LeBon, betrayed the squad by drugging them to make them into mindless killing machines. Vasic was deceived by Ming as well, and as a result committed evil acts he thought were for the greater good but later found out he had been ordered to carry out only for Ming’s selfish ends.
Now that the Arrow squad is no longer led by Ming, but by Vasic’s only close friend, Aden, Vasic has had to face up to his past deeds, but doing so has robbed him of his will to live. For the past two years, he has been going through the motions for the sake of his fellow Arrows and of the innocents in the PsyNet, whom he feels he should protect, but his desire to live is dying out.
So is his left forearm, which has been fused to a computronic gauntlet as part of an experiment Vasic volunteered for knowing it had a 25% chance of killing him. As Shield of Winter begins, Vasic is hanging to life only by a thin thread, numb and indifferent to the fact that his deathwish may soon come true.
Aden comes to Vasic with a theory that originates with Kaleb Krychek, the de facto dictator of the Psy race, a dangerous man with whom the Arrows are cooperating for the time being
A malevolent infection is threatening the PsyNet, the neural net that connects the Psy. This infection strikes in specific geographic locations and causes the Psy who live there to lose their minds and lash out with lethal violence against their neighbors.
The infection is now in danger of turning virulent and Kaleb—or perhaps his new mate Sahara—believes that the empaths known as E Psy may have the power to protect the Psy race from possible extinction.
The problem is that the E’s have been persecuted for their inability to observe the former protocol of the Psy race, Silence. Under Silence, all emotions had to be suppressed and the empaths could not do that. Many were subjected to “rehabilitation,” a treatment that turned their brains into vegetables. Others learned to hide their emotions. Still others were “reconditioned” through painful and harmful techniques.
Among the last group is Ivy Jane, an E whom Vasic is tasked with approaching and presenting with a job offer. Kaleb wants to hire ten E’s whom he knows have begun to awaken to their suppressed psychic gifts and use this group to test whether the infection can be combated.
But Ivy and her parents have gone into hiding at an apple farm, and when Vasic, a teleport-capable telekinetic, first appears from nowhere in the middle of the orchard, he terrifies her. Ivy believes her day of reckoning has arrived—that Vasic is there to take her to be rehabilitated.
Despite her fear, Ivy is fascinated by the ice cold, seemingly unemotional Arrow. And once Vasic makes it clear that he means her and her dog Rabbit no harm, she accepts the job offer he presents to her.
Along with nine other empaths, Ivy relocates to a remote area held by the SnowDancer and DarkRiver changelings. There the empaths begin to test their nascent powers. Each empath has an Arrow assigned to protect him or her, and Vasic is assigned to Ivy. Soon Ivy begins to think of him as “her Arrow.”
It doesn’t take Vasic long to return these feelings. As the two fall in love, Vasic realizes he wants to live after all. But threatening Vasic and Ivy’s happiness is the infection in the PsyNet, Ming Le Bon, who wants to drug Vasic again in order to reacquire his teleportation services, and worst of all, the faulty gauntlet whose fusion with Vasic’s brain may mean that Vasic’s days are numbered.
There are many characters from the previous books who make return appearances in this novel. Not only Vasic and Ivy, but also Aden, Kaleb and Sahara, Nikita and Anthony, Ming, Sascha and Lucas, Hawke and Sienna, Alice Eldridge, Judd and other Arrows.
We also briefly see Devraj Santos, Mercy and Riley, Ashaya, Dorian and their son , and we spend significant time with Zie Zen, who turns out to have a surprising connection to Vasic.
Perhaps because of the inclusion of so many other characters, or perhaps because the external plot about the infection takes up some of the wordcount, the Vasic/Ivy romantic relationship gets less attention than I wanted it to, and consequently Vasic and Ivy’s characters also aren’t explored as much as they could have been.
Jennie: I felt like a lot of time was spent with Kaleb and Sahara, in particular. More than I needed; I like them fine, but I got enough of them in their book. I was interested in Alice Eldridge, because she’s an intriguing character who hasn’t had her own book (yet?), but in general I don’t need to spend so much time revisiting past couples in romance series. Once I’m done with them, I’m done.
Janine: It probably was too much time, because there wasn’t quite enough reading time left for Ivy and Vasic, but it didn’t annoy me the way some of the time spent with Sascha and Lucas after Slave to Sensation or the time spent with Hawke and Sienna post-Kiss of Snow did.
Back to Ivy and Vasic–I found Ivy warm and caring and sweet, a little too much so. At one point Vasic thinks of her as “Strong and stubborn and loyal and with flaws that made her unique.” When I read that, I thought “What flaws?” She didn’t really have any. She didn’t even seem to bear scars from her near-rehabilitation or from years of being lied to about the nature of her abilities.
Jennie: I think that’s a good point – she was depicted early on as having been deeply traumatized by the rehabilitation attempt, but it only comes up a few times and Ivy is surprisingly unwary of the Psy power structure given her experience. I would have liked to have seen Ivy have a little more edge.
Janine: Yes, or other signs of trauma. After Heart of Obsidian, I didn’t feel the need for another heroine who’d been through the wringer but emerged unscathed. With Sahara at least there was a token reason for that, but here, there wasn’t any rationale beyond the one that Ivy was strong and resilient.
Still, I liked Ivy a lot for the way she told Vasic she loved him regardless of the things he had been forced or deceived into doing in the past. I also liked her for the way she cared for vulnerable people in the course of the story, and for her dog.
Ivy’s small and loveable dog, Rabbit, added a heartwarming touch to the novel and was a great addition to the cast. Sometimes I wondered if Rabbit had Psy abilities. He seemed to read Vasic and Ivy’s needs and moods with uncanny accuracy and even knew that Vasic might be running out of time.
Jennie: I liked that he was wary of Vasic at first and then came to accept him. I thought it mirrored Vasic’s own opening up nicely.
Janine: Vasic was strong, sexy, and haunted by the deaths and cover-ups he’d had a hand in. However, I felt he was portrayed pretty differently in this book from the way he’d been portrayed in earlier ones. Based on my reading of him in prior books, I had expected his book to be a darker one.
Jennie: This was one of my problems with Vasic and it highlighted a problem I have with the series in general. Vasic is dark and tortured over having done bad things, but when you get right down to it he is pretty much entirely blameless. He was first tortured and brainwashed then drugged to comply with Ming’s orders. I understand why he would feel guilty but I guess I still would have liked to see him actually be at least partly responsible for some of the bad things he did.
I feel like Singh sets up these characters to have edges but then pulls back. Another example is that in this book and certainly in others, the Changelings are portrayed as being so fiercely protective that they will lash out at any perceived threat to their loved ones. Which makes them sound tough, indeed.
I was half-watching one of the Twilight movies on television the other night – don’t judge me – and there was the scene where Jacob explains to Bella that Sam once accidentally attacked his mate in a rage while in his werewolf state. As a result she has facial scars, which Sam (rightfully) feels enormous guilt over.
People can say what they want about Twilight, and they are probably right, but I liked that in that one scene that Meyer commits to showing the animal nature of the werewolves, even the bad parts of it.
In contrast, with the changelings, none of them actually ever do attack, even when provoked.
Janine: The other problem that you had with Vasic not being truly guilty of much didn’t bother me—though that bothered me with Kaleb in Heart of Obsidian. Vasic, on the other hand, has been so tortured over his past deeds for so long that I had always assumed he was forced into them. He seemed to have too strong a conscience to have carried out these acts in the first place otherwise.
Jennie: Hmm, good point. Now that I think of it, maybe it would have bugged me less if it weren’t for Kaleb; his book was last and he was very present in this one, as we’ve discussed, and he’s definitely a character whose bark appears to be worse than his bite.
Janine: Back to Vasic, when I said that I find his portrayal here inconsistent with his portrayal in the earlier books, I was referring to how easily he got over his guilt.
I discussed this book on Twitter briefly with Mandi from Smexy Books and Ronnie from Paranormal Haven, and Ronnie made the excellent point that she expected Vasic to be at least as tortured by guilt over his actions as an Arrow as Judd had been in Caressed by Ice (given how Vasic behaved in earlier books, I would think he would be even more so), but he got over those issues a lot faster.
Jennie: I think I just assumed he was healed by True Love.
In the romance genre we have so many special ops heroes and so few books that question the justness of those heroes’ actions that I was really glad to see this book acknowledge that troops can be misused in ways that aren’t in line with their own beliefs and values. It would have pleased me even more had Vasic retired from combat for that reason, but I’ll take what I can get.
Another, related issue I had with Vasic’s character is that in the earlier books, Vasic had valued his life so little that he volunteered for an experiment that had a not insignificant chance of killing him. Yet soon after he began working with Ivy, he started falling for her, and not long after that, his deathwish faded away. We didn’t even see Ivy use her powers to influence his emotions to make him feel better and to change his mind. It happened on its own as a result of his falling in love with her.
In real life, suicidal depression isn’t permanently healed via falling in love, so I felt a little cheated by how easily this problem resolved itself here. I’d been looking forward for a few books now to seeing Vasic grapple with his lack of desire to live, and to have it go away as early as it did felt a bit too easy.
Jennie: I can see what you’re saying. For myself, I sort of felt like there was a scene missing; in one moment, Vasic was determined that he could never have a real relationship with Ivy, and in the next, he had decided that he would make the changes that he needed to in order to be with her. If there was an epiphany in between, it was a little too subtle for me.
Janine: You’re right that a transitional scene would have been helpful, but I needed more than just that—I needed the suicidal tendencies to be the focal conflict of the book. This guy had spent two years wanting to die. Then Ivy shows up and boom, he’s over it? Permanently? Without any outside help? And before he’s even dealt with the underlying guilt for the crimes he was forced to be party to?
Because while Vasic still had some guilt to deal with even after he decided he wanted to fight for his life, it no longer seemed debilitating, and this conflict was not at the center of the novel either. Instead the primary conflicts were the infection in the net and the defective gauntlet that was killing Vasic.
Jennie: I can see how that would bother you – it’s frustrating when you’re expecting something to be the crucial conflict in the book and instead it gets swept under the rug.
Sometimes I get indignant at the author on behalf of characters when I feel like they aren’t acting or reacting the way I expect them to. In a sense, it’s because I feel like I really know and understand the character, so in that way it’s actually a compliment to the author (but still annoying).
Janine: Yes, you’re right—it shows that the author has created a character whose journey I care about.
In this case, I also feel it would have made for a fresher conflict to explore Vasic’s guilt and his desire to die, instead of focusing on the gauntlet, because the character that cheats death at the last minute is a trope that has been used so many times in the Psy/Changeling series’ past.
Jennie: I’m a little over the close-calls-with-death aspect of the series, only because we’ve been told so many times that x character is definitely, almost certainly, really probably going to die, and the more it’s said the more I’m just reminded that duh, I know he’s not going to die, because he’s the hero.
I guess what I’m arguing for both here and in my complaint above about the semi-toothless Changelings is greater subtlety. The more I’m told that a characteristic or a situation is unchangeable, the harder I roll my eyes when there is the inevitable change.
Jennie: The lack of subtlety is a problem in the prose for me, too. On practically every page there is an example of writing that feels overemotive to me:
“Understanding crashed into her for the force of a freight train”
“…the sheer unfairness of the blade hanging over Vasic’s neck making her want to rage and scream and throw things in useless fury.”
The very intensity of these characters’ emotions starts to have the opposite of the intended effect on me, I think. It starts to feel kind of campy.
Janine: I can see how it would feel that way to another reader, but for me the intense emotions are a big part of what makes Singh’s books addictive. It’s not my idea of beautiful writing, but it’s visceral and it activates an emotional response in me.
I was recently in a Twitter discussion of cracktastic reads, and I said that in my opinion, the number one factor that helps an author bypass my judgment and get straight at my emotions is a strong voice. That is something I think Singh has in spades.
It’s not that I don’t see your point, because I do—there’s something almost bludgeoning about the force with which her character’s emotions come at the reader—but I think those big emotions are an integral part of her voice and the passion with which she writes is what makes me eager to pick up her books, even with the issues I have with them.
In fact I think it’s Singh’s style of writing emotion that helped make Vasic’s impending death and the battle against the infection compelling enough conflicts despite the aforementioned issues I had with them, and that’s one of the reasons I’m grading this book as high as I am.
Another reason is that though I wished Vasic and Ivy’s characterizations and relationship had been developed more, I liked them as a couple. They felt well matched, their interactions were romantic, each supported the other and was there for him or her equally, and I also loved that their relationship served as a beacon of hope to the other Arrows.
Jennie: I did think they were complementary to each other as a couple; in spite of Vasic’s great power as an Arrow, there didn’t feel like much of a power differential. I also liked that Vasic was aware of what the change in him meant for the rest of the Arrow team.
Janine: There were exciting developments in this novel in terms of the overarching plot, too. While the war between the Psy Council and the changelings may be over, it is a struggle on multiple fronts for the PsyNet to survive the infection, and in the process of battling it, new alliances are forged between characters who haven’t always trusted each other in the past.
Judd is my favorite character in this series so not surprisingly, I liked a scene in which he and Vasic discuss… no, I won’t spoil it.
Jennie: Hah – that was awesome!
Janine: There was some discussion between Kaleb and Sahara of why the Psy race needs the Ruling Coalition and Kaleb’s de facto dictatorship. I get it that not every society is always ready for democracy, I really do, but still, I can’t bring myself to see a dictatorship, however benevolent, as a good thing.
Jennie: In theory I agree with you, but knowing what is in Kaleb’s mind – knowing that he’s not actually a megalomaniac – made it easier for me to take.
Janine: It did help a bit, even for me.
Further points in Shield of Winter‘s favor are that this book kept me up late and also had me in tears more than once, especially the scenes with Zie Zen, with the Arrows, with children being rescued, with the cute little dog… I admit it, I am a sap. The ending was sentimental but also heartwarming.
Jennie: I think for me the negative issues that I have are larger than Shield of Winter and have more to do with the series as a whole and the world Singh has created. This, of course, begs the question of why I continue to read the series. I will say that I think most of my grades for the series are in the B range, and I am generally loath to give up on series once I get a few books in. Also, there is definitely something compelling (and unique, I’d say) about the world that Singh has created here.
That said, my issues with the Psy/Changeling series are as follows: I’m not comfortable with the juxtaposition of the intellectual Psy race and the intuitive, emotional Changeling race. Specifically, with few exceptions, Changelings are portrayed as good and Psy as bad. It feels unbalanced to me. At times, it feels almost…political, for lack of a better word, to me. This may just be my take on it, based on my own world view and experiences, but I don’t love the championing of “feeling” over “thinking.” I would like it so much better if Psy and Changeling were each portrayed as having negative and positive inherent qualities.
To be fair, it’s not that the Psy are all portrayed as bad. Silence is bad, certainly. Psy themselves seem to fall into three categories: 1) good, but needing to become more emotional (Changeling-like) to be happy and fully realized; 2) evil, sadistic and/or crazy; 3) sheeplike (the majority of the Psy who are not introduced as characters but referenced, certainly, several times in this book).
Changelings, on the other hand, are pretty much all good. There are perhaps a few exceptions, which Janine might remember better than I do, but they aren’t major characters, I don’t think. Other than that, the negative qualities that Changelings manifest are all of the “virtues masquerading as faults” type, which romance readers are certainly familiar with: possessive, love too much, just too damn masculine (the males, that is), imperious and high-handed.
I think this makes me uncomfortable because it feels like Changeling society is held up as better than Psy society (which, fair enough) AND Changelings are portrayed as inherently better than Psy, as a race. The latter is problematic and the combination of the two is really problematic.
Janine: You’ve brought this up before, and I agree it’s problematic. I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me that much; maybe because I’ve accepted this is the premise of the series, or maybe because I also read Singh’s other series where this conflict between emotion and thought doesn’t play out?
But as I said earlier, I also think there’s something about Singh’s voice that bypasses my judgment. I see the problematic stuff but I enjoy the books too much to care about it.
How would you grade Shield of Winter? I’m giving it a B-.
Jennie: I gave it the same grade, B-, though it’s on the edge of a C+ for me.