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captivity narrative

REVIEW:  Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh

REVIEW: Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh

PLEASE NOTE: It is impossible to summarize the plot of this book without disclosing some spoilers, including the identities of the main characters. Readers who prefer to avoid spoilers are advised not to read this review.

Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh

Dear Ms. Singh,

Since his introduction back in Visions of Heat, we’ve learned many things about former Councilor Kaleb Krychek. Kaleb is cold, ruthless, and lethal. He has been searching for someone, or something, for years. And he is capable of anything – but does that include love?

When we last saw him in Tangle of Need, Kaleb had at last found what he was looking for. And it was indeed a someone – a woman. Now, at the beginning of Heart of Obsidian, Kaleb and the woman he has rescued, or perhaps merely transported from one prison to another, face off.

What Kaleb demands of her is reasonable enough – that she eat, drink and shower. But the woman refuses, crouching and hissing at Kaleb instead. Her arms are scratched, her hair a tangle, her mind a shifting snarl of a maze, and the person she once was no longer there.

Still, she does seem to possess intelligence, and she does eat and drink after Kaleb samples the food and the beverage. Kaleb realizes he must negotiate with her, and provide, as much as he can, the illusion that he is giving her freedom. This despite the fact that Kaleb knows he has no intention of ever letting her go.

Though Kaleb’s captive recognizes exactly how dangerous he is, some part of her mind feels oddly safe, and it is this sense of safety that restores order to her thoughts by dissolving the maze she had created to thwart anyone who tried to control her psychically.

Kaleb has brought his quarry to an isolated but peaceful and calming environment, a large house that seems to have been thoughtfully designed, though Kaleb himself does not inhabit most of its rooms. He confines himself to a couple, and allows the woman he brought here to roam. As she does, she finds that objects in the house seem strangely familiar, though she cannot place them.

She does, however, eventually recall some parts of her past, including who she is – Sahara Kyriakus, of the Nightstar PsyClan. As she comes into greater awareness of herself, of who she is and what she wants, Sahara understand that she is attracted to Kaleb, and that this attraction could be her undoing.

That Kaleb wants her is clear – but does he want her for herself, or for the secret ability she has hidden, which, in the wrong hands, could make her the ultimate weapon?

Kaleb, realizing that Sahara is drawn to him, allows her to touch him. He knows that Sahara’s Silence is broken, and that sex can bond two people. It is a calculated decision for Kaleb to risk his own Silence by sleeping with Sahara, if such an opportunity presents itself, because a physical bond may make it harder for her to attempt to leave him.

But Sahara recognizes that the day when she is strong enough to leave will arrive, and that when it comes, she must be prepared. Kaleb, as the serial-killing Santano Enrique’s protégé, may have committed heinous crimes. Nor is Kaleb averse to doing away with the Psy race altogether – if certain conditions demand it.

Why, then, does Sahara feel safe with Kaleb? Why does part of her mind, which has memory gaps, insist he would never hurt her? Sahara was only sixteen when her earlier captors took her, and Kaleb would have been twenty-two at the time, so they would likely not have been lovers. Did they share some kind of connection, and if so, what was it?

Complicating Sahara and Kaleb’s relationship are attacks by the renegade group Pure Psy; attacks which Kaleb does what he can to counter. Is he doing so for reasons of his own, for ulterior motives, or is he in fact behind Pure Psy’s actions?

While Sahara agonizes over these questions, Kaleb waits for the other shoe to drop – for Sahara to remember the role he played in her earlier life. For when she does, Kaleb is certain she will not forgive his past actions, and he will then have to face her judgment – and her ability, which is the only one that can match and perhaps even outmatch his own.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Heart of Obsidian and in most regards, this book does not disappoint. Stark, romantic, and satisfying, the novel hinges on its hero’s dark magnetism.

The storyline is well plotted, entertaining and exciting. Because Kaleb is such an important figure in the Psy/changeling world, he features in the Psy politics subplots of this book as well as in the romantic main storyline. I’ll discuss the subplots first.

Of course, the question of whether or not Kaleb is the Ghost is answered in this novel, but while I have some caveats about how this is dealt with, I will not go into them here so as not to spoil the answer, which comes late in the novel.

It is refreshing that we spend little time with the changelings in this book, but their cameos are significant enough to the plot events that I did not mind their absence from the first half of the book. Rather, it was great to read a Psy/Psy romantic relationship, which feels less familiar and more interesting at this point.

There are some wonderful scenes with Aden and Vasic which reveal their strengths and their vulnerabilities, their loyalty to each other and their isolation and loneliness. I am looking forward to spending more time in the company of these characters in future books.

Heart of Obsidian feels more cohesive than most of the Psy/changeling books, with very few excursions away from the main characters. The fact that Kaleb and/or Sahara are in almost every scene allows for a close focus on the romance, while at the same time forwarding the Psy/changeling world political plotline, with some big developments on the latter front.

(Although I have to ask: am I the only one who would prefer to see free, democratic elections replace the Psy Council?)

In this book, the two aspects of the series – romance and political tensions — are woven together so tightly they are almost inseparable, something I really appreciated. But because of that, when the Kaleb/Sahara arcs are disrupted by the rare scene spent with Pure Psy or with a news bulletin, I was irritated and anxious to get back to the main characters.

About those main characters. The deeper development of Kaleb reveals a duality in him, the outward exterior of perfect Silence which conceals a “flaw” that could be his downfall. With Sahara, Kaleb is an enigma, ruthlessly pragmatic one moment, dangerously passionate the next, and calm and cool in the following instant. All this makes him a puzzle both Sahara and the reader would like to solve, and the pieces of this puzzle are only gradually filled in.

While I’m not convinced Sahara is Kaleb’s equal in strength and power, she is nonetheless no wilting violet, and I see her as a good match for him, someone who balances out his coldness and dangerous ambition with by grounding him in her warmth and stability.

That Sahara, who begins the book approximating a madwoman, is the one to serve this function is ironic, interesting, and a testament to her essential health and wholeness.

I found myself questioning whether someone who spent over seven years in captivity under horrifying circumstances could ever be as healthy as Sahara is presented (I felt her traumas were overshadowed by Kaleb’s), but I never doubted that Sahara was good for Kaleb.

Nor did I doubt that Kaleb was good for Sahara, which is quite a feat considering his effed up childhood, his twisted actions in adulthood, his warped propensity to contemplate destroying the Net, and his admission that where most people are concerned, he is incapable of empathy.

The thing is, though, that from the beginning, Kaleb is unfailingly thoughtful to Sahara, focused on her, honest with her, and shows her every concern. I did wonder, though, that the messed up aspects of Kaleb didn’t give Sahara even more of a pause.

Not many people are incapable of empathy for 99% of sentient beings. If I were contemplating spending the rest of my life with someone, I would want that person to be able to care about the people I care about.

It is also mentioned in Sahara’s thoughts that Kaleb didn’t rise to the Council without getting his hands dirty, but the details of these killings are conveniently glossed over. And then there is the fact that destroying the PsyNet, an idea Kaleb takes quite seriously, is, not to put too fine a point on it, nothing less than genocide.

There is a point in the story in which Sahara thinks that Kaleb is not as bad as he believes, and another in which she tells him that while she would not condone some of the things he did or considered doing, because she too did something morally ambiguous once, she would never judge him for his own moral missteps. Neither one of these statements convinced me to share Sahara’s opinions of Kaleb.

Ultimately, I concluded that this book wants to have it both ways: On the one hand, we are intended to love the fact that Kaleb is such a badass that he could conceivably lay waste to most of his own race. On the other hand we are also meant to agree with Sahara that Kaleb isn’t really a bad guy after all.

If this works in the context of the novel, it’s because like Sahara, the reader is caught up in Kaleb’s power, magnetism, consideration and protectiveness, and in the romance of Sahara being a rare and precious exception to Kaleb’s general lack of empathy and inability to connect with other people.

Isn’t it most people’s fantasy, in some small, secret, immature part of the soul, to be loved to the exclusion of all other considerations? This book taps into that fantasy.

And if we fully buy into that fantasy while reading Heart of Obsidian, then it doesn’t matter that Kaleb is basically a sociopath with an asterisk next to the word: *Sahara Kyriakus and perhaps a few others exempted. It doesn’t matter because the novel makes it damned romantic.

That in itself is disturbing. But the fact is, I enjoyed reading about Kaleb and Sahara’s love, and even about the lengths they were willing to go to for each other. Philosophical and moral qualms aside, Heart of Obsidian was quite a compelling read. I rate it a B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

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When I started this series, I was working toward a consideration of why certain types Romance novels and authors are so popular right now, especially when they have generated so much controversy and even divisiveness among readers. I started with the assertion that Romance, because it covers the territory of love, marriage, family, and relationships more generally, is very much a genre concerned with how power between individuals — and between individuals and society – is defined, granted, taken, exchanged, balanced, and otherwise negotiated in a way that is ultimately resolved into significant, even lifelong, mutual love and happiness.

Because Romance is a genre that in part grew out of sentimental fiction (inclusive of the so-called sensational novels), which itself grew out of captivity narratives (among other genres, including amatory fiction), the genre’s literary ancestry is rich and diverse, but also pretty consistent in its engagement with certain tropes, character types, literary devices, and archetypes that flow through more than 300 years of immensely popular texts populated, voiced, and/or written by women.

One of these devices – that of captivity – is especially robust in its persistence, and as I traced (in a much more simplified and superficial way than the topic deserves) the history of what are commonly referred to as North American Indian Captivity Narratives, I wanted to show how the device has adapted to different genres while still raising some of the same issues around how women (particularly women from Western societies) are both insiders and outsiders to the social power structure. Characteristics such as race, class, education, family history, and other forms of social capital will shift the insider-outsider balance, but the dynamic itself is always central to these narratives.

More specifically, I wanted to show that the motif of captivity is one that is very commonly used in the portrayal of romantic relationships (and clearly, its popularity in mythological and religious narratives is critical, as well), sometimes overtly (Mary Jo Putney’s Uncommon Vows), sometimes symbolically (Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet), to bring the heroine into a place of unfamiliar extremity from the life she is used to, such that she can ultimately find a new “home,” constitutive of love and happiness with the hero.

One of the main differences between the original Indian captivity narratives and Romance’s adaptation, is that the heroine of yore was supposed to be “redeemed” to her original home, unchanged but not unchallenged by her experience. Indeed, she was supposed to be stronger and steadier in her religious and cultural convictions, as well as more “pure” in her spiritual mission. What often happened, however, is that the time she spent among people different from herself created a temporary bridge between her culture and theirs, such that the reader could vicariously experience the immersion of the heroine in this different cultural space. And let me be clear here in saying that these representations were not necessarily realistic nor represented without prejudicial and even racist attitudes. In fact, many of these narratives were written with the explicit intent to demonstrate the captive’s cultural and/or spiritual superiority to the captor’s society.

However, the representation of cultural difference in these narratives is compelling enough to bring the captive and her readers into a place of cross-cultural sympathy, which both subverts the narrative’s articulated intent and challenges many of the differences that the narratives tries to reinforce. Moreover, the narratives that provide the most generous space for a sympathetic bond between captor and captive/reader are those that have always been most popular. Mary Jemison, who married within the Seneca, renounced her Irish immigrant family and her status as an “American,” and lived for all intents and purposes as a member of the Seneca nation (two husbands and several children, included), is still having her story re-told, almost two hundred years after its first publication.

So what’s the significance of this for Romance? I think the answer is multi-layered and much more complex than I have even begun to explore in this series. But one important similarity I see is the way in which the Romance genre often treats courtship like journey into a new and different territory, one that requires a stripping away of certain layers to the heroine and hero (in straight Romance, at least; I think m/m requires its own conversation), and a reformation, in a way, of the individuals as they become a couple. In those books where the power between the hero and heroine is represented as most equitable, the change may be less drastic. In those books where either the power appears to be most inequitable, change may be more drastic, and depending on how the power is configured, its negotiation will require different changes from each partner.

The lack of a power imbalance between hero and heroine does not necessarily mean there will be no conflict in the relationship. In some cases, if you have a two alphas, for example, you may have more conflict between the protagonists, precisely because there is more power on both sides to negotiate. Similarly, a large power differential between hero and heroine does not guarantee overt power negotiations; how many historical Romances or Harlequin Presents novels do we see where a heroine with much less power seems to “lift up” the heroine to his social level, for example. However, it is often in books where there is a substantial power-related conflict between hero and heroine that we will see the presence of some sort of force that bears down on the relationship and the narrative, strong enough to effect a romantic resolution. Sometimes that force is the captivity itself (The Sheik, for example), and sometimes it is something else, either a force outside the couple or between them (in The Sheik, for example, there are several acts of force, and the one that solidifies the couple comes from an outside threat of violence to both of them).

Historically speaking, books that bring their protagonists into the greatest conflict and extremity are often seen as close to or even exceeding the genre’s boundaries – take the derisively named category of “bodice rippers,” for example. However, my position is precisely the opposite: that these books are at the very heart of the work the genre is doing vis a vis investigating how two people who often come from very different backgrounds and positions of social power can form a happy, well-balanced romantic unit. That these books take these dynamics to an extreme does not make them any less core Romance to me – in fact, I think that these are the books that are most overtly, explicitly, and intensely performing the social, gender, and sexual power negotiations that the genre continues to replay.

In fact, I would categorize many genre favorites among these Extreme Romances: Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels; Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold; Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief (to take a recently reviewed classic); most, if not all, of Linda Howard’s books (I’d probably put a lot of Romantic Suspense here, actually, as well as many Paranormal Romances; Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series; Nalini Singh’s Psy series, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series; JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series; Christine Feehan’s Carpathian books; Stephanie Laurens’s Cynster series; books by Maya Banks, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Charlotte Lamb (quite a few Harlequin authors, in fact), Anne Stuart, Johanna Lindsey, and Jennifer Crusie, as well as many authors of Erotic Romance.

While many readers don’t understand the popularity of authors like E.L. James or Kristen Ashley, I am more stumped by the divisive antagonism they have generated among Romance readers. However, perhaps this is another aspect of books that do push core genre concerns to the extreme: reader responses will mirror the extremity of the books themselves.

Which brings me to the questions all of this thinking about the genre and its historical development have raised.

First, how can we diversify the genre beyond the paradigms it so often reproduces. Paradigms that privilege whiteness, heterosexuality, economic prosperity, and a post-Enlightenment model of romantic love that depends on historically defined gender roles and sexual expectations? Sunita’s call for Romances that do not presuppose Western notions of romantic love comes to mind here, because what better way to challenge dominant social norms than by shifting the paradigms?

Second, have readers become too fluent in genre? One thing that seems to be a real strength among Romance readers is the ease with which we can become adept at knowing the kind of books we like and translate genre shorthand when an author doesn’t necessarily spell it out. But with this kind of fluency can also come the laziness of thinking we know what a book is going to give us – positive or negative – before reading it. We take shortcuts as readers, not necessarily giving a new book a chance because it has too familiar elements. We may no longer read as closely or as carefully, failing to interrogate things that wouldn’t really sit right if we really thought about them, refusing to be challenged by the possibility of a different perspective or interpretation. So have we started to shortchange ourselves and the genre by relying too heavily on reader fluency?

Third, when readers say they want new and different and fresh, what does that mean? One of the things I’ve heard over and over about Fifty Shades, for example, is that it’s the same-old, same-old, packaged as new. And in some ways that’s very true. There is a lot that is derivative about the story, a lot that’s traditional. And yet, I also think there are some provocative elements, provocative enough to have caught on beyond genre readers and to have women publicly talking about sexuality in bolder, more empowered ways. Which is not to say that a book like Fifty is a new reading experience for every reader, nor that its popularity will be understood by every reader (I think Kaetrin’s post on the unexplainable is appropriate here). Also, in an environment where people are still talking about “da rulez” and how restricting they are, Kristen Ashley is pushing more envelopes in her books than I’ve seen in quite a while. She’s tackling race, class, and characters off the grid. Yet, like James, she’s also working with some very traditional genre elements, too. And, like James, her books are selling like crazy, although not necessarily to the same readers. Some readers cannot abide either author’s books, but are still calling for “new” and “fresh.” So is there anything here — either in the voices of readers who love these books or hate them — that provides some clue as to what else readers are looking for?

As I argued in my post on Romance genre boundaries (e.g. there aren’t really that many), any genre is a mix of well-worn and freshly turned raw material. And I am starting to wonder how open readers really are to novelty in the genre – or whether there’s a point at which genre fluency becomes cynicism (this post by Tobias Buckell is an interesting take on the experienced reader). We say we want new, but just not that type of new (whatever “that” is). What are we looking for?

Do readers want books that break the so-called rules, or do we want books we can count on to give us a particular experience? Do we need to start challenging the dominant tropes, devices, and motifs of the genre, and if so, what would we want in their place? Does the HEA restrict the genre in terms of being able to pull off more difficult power negotiations – that is, do the aspirational qualities of the genre mean that the genre should not present certain scenarios? Or is it that we are at a crossroads of sorts: wanting something new but not knowing what that is; feeling compelled to return again and again to familiar ground, no longer truly satisfied, but at least recognized and understood. Like the genre itself, perhaps?