EPIC JOINT REVIEW: Tangle of Need by Nalini Singh

EPIC JOINT REVIEW: Tangle of Need by Nalini Singh

Janine: When I emailed the DA loop to see if anyone wanted to review Tangle of Need with me, I had no idea what spark I ignited.  Jennie took me up on it, and the resulting review is epic in its length and scope.  Hope you guys enjoy it.

Jennie: This is apparently the 11th book in the Psy/Changeling series (at least according to Wikipedia, which as we all know, is never wrong). That surprised me a bit – I thought there’d been a lot of books in the series but not that many – maybe more like eight.

Janine: I actually knew it was book eleven!  Do I get a prize?

Jennie: You get to read book twelve when it comes out.

Janine: Yay! (Given the last scene of Tangle of Need, I’m jonesing for book twelve.)

Tangle of Need by Nalini Singh

Jennie: I am perhaps not the best person to speak authoritatively about the series; though I’ve read all the books, they kind of blend together for me and I’m not actually that big of a fan of the world Singh has created in the series. If anything, I feel like I’ve become more and more ambivalent about certain aspects of it, an ambivalence that definitely affected my enjoyment of Tangle of Need.

Janine: I think I like them a lot better than you do, but I understand and on occasion even share your ambivalence.

Jennie: Yeah; I know that you often lose interest in series after a couple of books, so sticking it out with this series up through book eleven is an impressive feat!

Janine: My problem sticking with series mostly applies to series that follow the same main characters. What helps me follow the Psy/changeling series is that each book has a new hero and heroine.

Jennie: The hero and heroine of ToN are Riaz and Adria, both changeling wolves of the SnowDancer pack. I’m sure they’ve both appeared in the series before; I kind of remember Adria, but Riaz honestly doesn’t ring a bell.

Janine: I only remembered Riaz from Branded by Fire, Mercy and Riley’s book, but had forgotten that his romantic history was mentioned in Play of Passion (Drew and Indigo’s book) until I was reminded of it in Tangle of Need, so I can relate a little.

Jennie: A character glossary featuring more than 50 names is included in the beginning of the book, which gives you an idea of just how many people there are to keep track of. I’m guessing that some of the little details about tertiary characters – this one has a flirtation with that one, that sort of thing – is intended to give shading to the complex world Singh has created. I’m also guessing that it works for some readers on that level. For me, that many characters just makes me anxious – I feel like an Australian Shepherd trying to maintain control of my flock every time someone new pops up. Who is this? What am I supposed to know about this person? It’s information overload for me.

Janine: LOL re the shepherd metaphor.  But see, I’m one of the readers who gets a kick out of the cast of thousands.  I like the various dynamics, whether political, hierarchical, romantic, bromantic, rivalry, flirty, or what have you.  I actually remember most of them pretty easily, which to my mind is evidence that Singh is doing something right.

Jennie:  I think it’s evidence that you’re engaged, so Singh is obviously doing something right for you.

Janine: Exactly.

Jennie: The early pages of the book establish that Adria is hostile for Riaz and that Riaz doesn’t know why. It turns out that her hostility is because she’s attracted to him and resents it (and apparently she’s an 8th grader emotionally), so she lashes out.

Janine: I thought it was because she’d felt rejected in her earlier relationship with Martin and it was clear to her off the bat that Riaz was going to be emotionally unavailable (more rejection) yet due to her wolf-half, her physical need for him was so great that she was terrified that something really humiliating and painful would happen.  Justifiably so, I thought.  And her defense mechanism was to keep Riaz from guessing what was going on by going beyond prickly to porcupine mode.

 Jennie: Adria just got out of a bad relationship and she is not looking for a new partner; a lone wolf like Riaz seems like a particularly bad bet. Nonetheless, Riaz and Adria quickly get physical once he realizes her attraction to him and decides it’s mutual.

Riaz pulls back shortly afterward, telling Adria that he doesn’t like her, because apparently he’s also an emotional 8th grader.

Janine: I bought his behavior too.  It seemed to me that he was (A) reacting to Adria’s abrasiveness and (B) it was killing him to feel this attraction for her, for reasons having to do with feeling disloyal toward someone else (more on this below).

Jennie: For not much reason that I could figure, it’s then another 80 pages – a good 1/3 into the book – before Riaz and Adria give into their pounding lust for each other (lust we hear about at length throughout) and decide on a sort of friends-with-benefits arrangement. Such relationships aren’t uncommon among the pack – the changelings are highly physical and affection-seeking, as a rule. But besides Riaz’s unique position as a lone wolf (a status I never fully understood, since by the end Riaz did not seem to require more solitude than the other wolves), he has found his mate. (I feel like that statement should be accompanied by a “dun-Dun-DUN!!!” because it’s apparently really a Big Deal among the changelings.) The problem is that Riaz’s mate, a human named Lisette, is happily married and apparently semi-oblivious to how she and Riaz are (or were) destined for each other.

Janine: This was a pretty epic problem and although I was annoyed with Riaz’s treatment of Adria early on, I could feel for him because his physical response to Adria was a betrayal of the mate his wolf had chosen.

Jennie: I think I get that intellectually, but I just don’t feel it, because so often the wolves’ emotions (and Riaz’ in particular) feel over-the-top to me, and not in a good way.

Anyway, I found this kind of confusing – the nature of fated mates may be better explained in one of the previous books, in which case I’ve just forgotten the explanation. I understand the concept of animals who mate for life, but what we’re talking about here is something different -  a sort of master plan devised by God or the universe or whatever fating one person to be another’s mate. (I’m also not clear on whether it’s mostly just for changelings, since Lisette is human and I’m pretty sure some of the previous pairings have Psy/changeling mates – in fact, Hawke and Sienna have a mating bond, though I think it’s different from the sort of bond changelings have with each other. This is hard. Maybe I should stick to picture books.)

Janine: You’re cracking me up.  I don’t look at it as having to do with fate though.  My interpretation, based on everything I’ve read so far in this series, is that the changelings have an animal half that chooses or at least accepts a mate (out of more than one possible potential mate) and once that mating bond is complete, it cannot be undone.  If the mating bond is not yet complete (as in the case of Hawke, and though dealt with differently in this book, also in the case of Riaz) that isn’t exactly the same situation.

Jennie: Okay, that helps. But it still feels a little mystical to me, because Riaz’ mating bond with Lisette is presented as instantaneous and not particularly based on being attracted to her or liking her – he doesn’t even really know her at first (I don’t think he ever knows her that well). So maybe “fated” is too strong a word, but it seems analogous to love at first sight, which is not a trope that works well for me in general.

Once Adria realizes that Riaz has a mate, she is even warier of their deepening relationship, seeing nothing but heartache in her future. Riaz decides that he is really into Adria and increasingly pushes for a more serious relationship.

There is a lot going on in ToN. In addition to the romance between Adria and Riaz, we see a lot more of Hawke and Sienna’s relationship. We also get some time with Mercy and Riley; that was less intrusive but still not really necessary IMO, considering how many other storylines the book featured. Kaleb Krychek made a number of appearances; I’m as intrigued by Kaleb as anyone is (though I already fear his book will be a disappointment) but I felt like the passages featuring him were irritatingly opaque. Kaleb’s searching for some mysterious person about whom we’re given no other information. Since I figured there wouldn’t be any revelations about his quest in this book, it just felt like a tease to me. There were also a couple of appearances by two Arrows who my notes called “those two guys” but who you reminded me are Aden and Vasic; I’d like to see more of them. (Generally I am worn out with the changelings at this point and would really like to see more Psy.)

Janine: Because of the way our notes for this review came together, I comment on the side storylines further down, when our discussion of  Tangle of Need really gets rolling.  But first, a debate about the Psy/changeling series.

Jennie: My problems with this series can probably be broken down into a few semi-distinct categories at this point:

1)  I feel like the whole series has increasingly been about championing romanticism over rationalism (I’m using these terms in a broad sense). The changelings are driven by instinct and their own animal natures. They are portrayed by and large as successful, thriving, moral and loving, with few exceptions. It is true that they don’t always succumb to their (at times wildly over the top) emotions; they are capable of thought and discretion. But even when those emotions are ones we would consider negative – extreme possessiveness and rage, to give two examples - in the world Singh creates they are both inexorable and somehow not-so-secretly virtuous. The changeling male, for instance, is only so possessive and controlling because he loves his mate so much, and besides, he can’t really help it.

In contrast, the Psy are portrayed as powerful but fundamentally flawed as a race. We know that fractures, madness and violence led to Silence, which was probably overkill but seemed like a good idea at the time (and I can understand why it did, particularly to the already-given-to-cool-logic Psy). Silence broke up families and led to abuses, but in some ways it did seem to work for a number of decades. Nonetheless, the Psy featured as heroes and heroines of the series (and I would really like to get back to at least one of the pairing being non-changeling, given my issues with the changelings) all had to leave the PsyNet and break from Silence in order to find happiness and love. I may be missing something, but I’m not clear on how this addresses the problems that Silence was created to deal with.

I have fundamental issues with a world where one race is portrayed as good and another as bad. I’d love to see a little more balance.

Janine: More balance wouldn’t be unwelcome, but I actually feel that the series has gotten more balanced on this issue since it started.  In the first book, there were very few good Psy but now we’ve met several, and it is made clear in the characters’ discussions that many, many Psy aren’t evil.  And some of the ones who are have been infected by the DarkMind, I think, so it’s not always though any fault of their own.

Singh has chosen to portray celebration of emotion as preferable to suppression of emotion and that is an argument I can respect up to a point, because I do think that when we suppress our emotions, they often come out sideways in ugly ways.  I don’t think she’s wrong about that.

At the same time, I can also see your point that an excess of emotion or violent emotion can also be harmful and unstable, but Singh doesn’t portray it in that light.  I think that’s a very fair criticism.

For the most part, though, this admittedly problematic aspect of the books doesn’t chafe me to the same degree it seems to chafe you, and I think the reason why boils down to my acceptance that this author has a worldview that I don’t share.  I feel much the same about Linda Howard’s books.  Both authors write books that affirm male physical and sexual dominance, and justice almost always takes the form of (sometimes brutal) violence.  I am not on board with these things in real life, but I find their books compulsively readable and hugely entertaining so I’m willing to put my values on the backburner while I read.  Why?  Maybe someone else can say.  It’s a mystery to me.

Jennie: 2) I’m sick of how much emphasis is given to the men overpowering the women in this series; this is particularly a problem with the changelings, of course. Lip service is given to the women being strong (particularly the dominant ones, though there’s condescending business in this book about how intimidating the “maternals” can be), but it’s just a sham.  I noticed particularly in this book that mentions of Adria’s dominance were almost equally balanced with observations about her softer side, her empathy and warmth.  It can’t just be left at “Adria’s a dominant wolf” without appending “but she’s a woman too!, and totally girly!”

Janine: On this I agree completely.  In fact if it were up to me, I think I might banish the word “feminine” from romance novels altogether.  I can tell that a female character is in fact female without needing that adjective to reassure me of her femininity.

Jennie: The heroes are always shown dominating the heroines, just edging them out each time in all things, whether it be a footrace or a battle of wills. I hate romances that pit the h/h against each other over and over, and all the more when it’s just to show that the men are stronger and will always win. A couple of examples:

 “She was a tall woman, but he was taller.”

“His dominance was staggering, demanding her wolf’s absolute attention.”

Now, my issue is not with Riaz being taller than Adria – men are usually taller than women, generally speaking. But why make a point of it except to subtly (or not so subtly) convey that he is dominant over her? Similarly, I can’t imagine that sentence reading “Her dominance was staggering, demanding his wolf’s absolute attention.” They are both supposed to be dominants, but (and this is the case in the other books featuring dominant pairings) it’s made very clear who the alpha is.

Janine: Hmm.  I think I have to admit to having a split personality on these points, because while the heroes’ besting of the heroines can often irritate me, when it comes to the physical dominance stuff, I revel in it. There is enough defiance in the heroines that I get some kind of sexual kick from the whole he’s big and strong and bossy thing.  While most people probably wouldn’t label it so, I think it borders on light BDSM.

Jennie: 3)  I find the over-the-top possessiveness of heroes in this series less and less attractive; so often the language is the same as one would expect to find from an obsessed stalker. (Again, this is a problem with the changelings – it’s been so long since I’ve read a non-changeling hero that I’m not sure if it’s as much of an issue with them.) Example, during a confrontation between Hawke and Sienna:

Hackles still raised by the thought of her lunch date, he straightened to his full height, his mate’s hands sliding to his shoulders. ‘If that cub puts his hands anywhere near you, I don’t care if he is your friend, I’ll rip his arms off.’ He wasn’t joking—this soon after mating, the wolf was possessive beyond belief, the mating bond raw.

Oh, how romantic.

Janine: In at least some of the books (Mercy/Riley, Judd/Brenna, and I think there have been others), Singh’s male changelings have to learn to deal with the heroines’ need for freedom, and that helps me accept their borderline-stalkerish possessiveness when it comes out.  If Hawke actually ripped Kit’s arms off I would hate his guts, but the fact that part of him wants to and he has to try to rein that part of himself in actually makes him interesting to me, albeit in a non-PC way.

Jennie: I think what bothers me is that the author seems to want to have it both ways; she wouldn’t actually have Hawke attack Kit in such a way, but at the same time the reader is supposed to thrill in the possessiveness and the possibility that he would. Because, after all, in the scene, it’s not that Hawke is reining himself in; he’s simply set a boundary after which point he asserts that he will resort to this violence. And again there is the sense that because the mating bond is “raw” he simply would not be able to control himself.

I am just so tired of the extremity of wolf emotions (there’s a moment when Riaz experiences a “crucible of shattering pain” – I think it’s when the wolf den runs out of Cheerios one morning before he’s had breakfast). I think this goes back to point #1 – the animalistic nature of the heroes is championed over and over. I get the appeal of that, but a little goes a long way with me, and Singh’s heroes always go far past “a little.”

Janine: Some aspects of the series do feel unbalanced to me as well, and yet, I also think the tension these issues create in readers are part and parcel of what makes these books so readable.

Jennie:  You’re probably right about that.

4) I find the world Singh creates confusing at times. This is true sometimes with the changelings – like, the mating bond thing. At times it seems to work like a psychic tether, almost an internal walkie-talkie between the h/h, but I’m really not sure if I’m getting a clear picture of it. It’s even more of an issue with the Psy and specifically the PsyNet. I kind of have a vague understanding of how it works, but sometimes it feels like Singh gives overly physical descriptions to non-physical processes, and that leaves me confused and questioning my understanding. There are a couple of instances where Aden and Vasic are (psychically) rummaging around the Net in a way that brings to mind two people in an overpacked attic – one is described as leaving a “door” open for another.

I think the physicality of these descriptions causes problems for me because it makes me stop and try to picture the processes being described, and they don’t really make sense because it’s hard (for me, anyway) to understand the PsyNet as a physical entity. It makes more sense to me as a sort of computer hard drive that all of the Psy are linked to.

Janine: I’m pretty clear on the mating bond, but the PsyNet can be confusing to me as well.

Jennie: The larger problem is that I end up with the sense that Singh is making it up as she goes along, and creating and discarding rules as the suit the purposes of her plot. I may be the only reader who feels this way, but it’s bothered me for a while. (For instance, in previous books, removing Psy characters from the Net was presented as an insurmountable problem sure to result in their deaths. Somehow the difficulty always surmounted at the last minute by some confusing technical deus ex machina.)

Janine: I agree that some of the last minute salvations have felt contrived, but I don’t think that means Singh is making things up as she goes along!  My impressions on that are the reverse of yours. I think to keep track of this many characters and of subplots that take several books to build up, she has to be pre-planning her books.

Getting off the topic of the whole series and back to the subject Tangle of Need in particular, with regard to Riaz, I really loved the question this book poses: In a world where changelings typically mate only once, what do you do if you find your mate and s/he is happily married to someone else?  Can you move on?  Can you fall in love again?  And if you do, can you be true to your new lover, heart and soul?

Jennie: I don’t find the fated mate thing romantic; I never have. It ends up feeling like the h/h have much less of a choice, and like they are together simply due to biology. So it actually worked better for me to have Adria not be Riaz’s natural mate. At the same time, it did feel a little like she was second best. I think too much emphasis was given to how critical the mating bond was to dismiss it as unnecessary in their relationship.

Janine: Agreed – I liked that Adria wasn’t his mate, but it did make her feel like a second fiddle at times.  With Adria, the book also explored how emotional baggage from an earlier relationship can impact the current one. It was especially interesting to me that while Adria and Martin split up because she didn’t love him as much as he did her, she later ended up facing the same issue with Riaz, but from the other side of the equation – questioning whether Riaz could ever love her as much as she did him.

Jennie: Was that why Adria split with Martin? I thought it was a little of that and a little of his issues with her being a dominant.

Janine: Yes, and also the mating bond thing – Martin wanted to know he was first in her heart, but her inability to mate him prevented that. There was a nice irony in the way Adria found herself feeling the same way about Riaz as Martin had felt about her (though she handled it better than Martin did).

Jennie:  It seemed to me that the focus was placed on how badly Martin dealt with his resentments (though it also seemed like her family had never liked him, making me wonder if he’d always been a bit of a jerk or there is really a lot of prejudice in the changeling world against dominant female/non-dominant male pairings).

Janine: Agreed.  Based on how the more dominant female/less dominant male pairing was handled in Play of Passion (Drew/Indigo), I think that even if there isn’t such a prejudice in the changeling world, there seems to be one in the way the author has chosen to handle that issue.

Adria and Martin’s relationship was explained more in this book, and I liked that Martin, while not as strong as Adria needed him to be, turned out to be a more worthwhile person than he’d seemed based on what we heard about him in Play of Passion. Not only did it explain why Adria stayed in that relationship as long as she did and why the experience made her doubt her new relationship with Riaz, it also fleshed out Martin’s character and made him more interesting to read about.

Jennie: I did appreciate that he wasn’t demonized. It also read a bit to me like Singh was giving Adria some of her confidence back; she was at least wanted by someone even if she felt second-best with Riaz.

Janine: Yes. At times I found Riaz and Adria’s relationship a touch bittersweet, but I loved the way the conflict in that relationship was resolved.  I did not anticipate that resolution, and it really pleased me. It was touching and sentimental, but at the same time, it felt real.

Jennie: I did feel like, in the end, Riaz and Adria had a believable HEA. I mean, I didn’t believe the way they got there, necessarily (first the mating bond is everything, then the mating bond doesn’t matter that much), but I believed in them as a couple.

Janine: I bought into how they got there, but I won’t say more about why so as not to spoil that journey for readers.

Still, despite what I said above, at about the 60% mark the Adria/Riaz dynamic started feeling a little repetitive to me and I was able to put this book down.  I enjoyed Tangle of Need a lot but it wasn’t a late night bleary eyed reading experience like Kiss of Snow and  Archangel’s Blade. 

Jennie: I don’t know that any of her books have been that way for me, but ToN did feel like it took me a long time to read. Still, with all my criticisms, there remains something compelling about the series and the world Singh has created. I agree that the central romance felt repetitious – even with all of the other subplots going on and the fact that they took a while to get started, there just wasn’t enough conflict between Adria and Riaz to sustain a whole book.

Janine: As you mentioned above, there was a LOT of Hawke and Sienna in this book—I haven’t done a page comparison but I felt like I was reading almost as much about the two of them as about Riaz and Adria.  Much as I love Hawke and Sienna, I didn’t need quite so much of their newly mated bliss.  This was also the first book in which the age gap in their relationship wasn’t entirely enjoyable to me but actually bugged me a little. In addition, I felt that during the first quarter or so of the book, Hawke and Sienna overshadowed Riaz and Adria.

Jennie: Yes, as I said above, I felt the same way. The age difference has never bothered me, though – do you know why it started to bother you in this book when it hadn’t previously?

Janine: I think it had to do with a crack Hawke made about double dating with Sienna’s much younger friends.  He had no intention of following through but the image still got into my head and not only did that joke fall flat, it also made me realize Sienna could not bring him into her friends’ circle because of the choice she’d made.

On another topic, the Ghost only had a couple of scenes in this book, but I have to say, the first of them mesmerized me.  I cannot wait for more of him. I think I am unusual in that I really don’t care that much about Kaleb, only about the Ghost. After Kiss of Snow I was convinced Kaleb was the Ghost, but now I’m wondering if it could be Vasic.

Jennie: Kaleb seems too obvious at this point. Vasic is a good guess!

Janine: I am “on tenterhooks” as they say in RegencyLand, to find out, but I’m so there regardless of whether it’s Vasic or Kaleb.

Kaleb spent much of this book searching for someone and though I still don’t know who, I expect we’ll find out more in the next book.  I’m excited about where Kaleb’s story is heading, and also wondering, will Aden and Vasic get their own stories? I really hope so.  I’m ready for the hot (in a cold way) Psy men.

Jennie: Yes! Though, being more ambivalent about the series, I’m more concerned about how Kaleb might change in his book. I don’t want to see him become this macho caricature that isn’t really representative of a Psy male.

Janine: Judd rocks, as always.

Jennie: I agree! Judd is one of my favorite heroes from the series.

Janine: He’s my favorite character in the series hands down. I recently read Caressed by Ice  for the third time, and I came to the conclusion that though it’s a very good book, I actually find Judd even more interesting as a side character in the other books than he is in his own book.

Jennie: Why do you think that is?

Janine: His romance with Brenna makes Caressed by Ice one of my favorite books in the series, but somehow I feel that the most interesting aspect of his character has to do with his background in the Arrow squad and the way he broke silence despite risks that have exceeded those faced by the other Psy in the series. For these reasons, I find his relationship with the Arrow squad members, his helping the little boy with the TK-cell ability, and his bromance with the Ghost at least as fascinating as his love life. I think these little connections are a big part of what makes him so compelling.

On a completely different subject, there was a lot of inter-pack political stuff in this book, with three separate groups contacting Hawke about allying themselves with SnowDancer.  These developments felt rushed to me, given how long it took for SnowDancer and DarkRiver to gain each other’s trust and work together.  I also didn’t understand why, if SnowDancer and DarkRiver are now partnered, Lucas wasn’t involved in the meetings with the new groups seeking SnowDancer’s cooperation.  It didn’t ring true to me that Hawke could just make all these decisions unilaterally.

Jennie: That’s a good point, and one I hadn’t really thought of. I’d like to see more of the cats anyway, almost as much as I’d like to see more of the Psy. I’m just sick of wolves, dammit!

Janine: This is not quite the case with me.  My three favorite books in the series, Caressed by Ice (Brenna/Judd), Branded by Fire (Mercy/Riley) and Kiss of Snow (Sienna/Hawke) have all had wolf characters, and the last two Psy/human pairing books didn’t do that much for me, but even I am ready for a change of pace now.

Mercy and Riley got a small storyline in this book too, and (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) while I was happy with it at first, by the end I wasn’t sure what I thought of it.  Mercy is quite possibly my favorite heroine in the series for her strength and independence, and I just hope she stays the Mercy I’ve always loved.

Jennie: I think this ties into some of the issues I mentioned above. Why must the kickass heroines be so overtly softened? I don’t need to read about dominant, kickass heroines but if I do, I don’t want the author to pull her punches and soften the heroine in an attempt to make her more conventionally appealing to readers. Let her just be who she is.

Janine: Yes!!!  The women with most of the story in this book – Adria, Sienna and Mercy—all bowed to their love interests’ wishes at times.  I felt there were more instances of the women bowing to the men’s wishes than vice versa.  This bothered me because I wanted more gender equality.

Jennie: Preach.

Janine: The subplot dealing with the attempt to awaken Alice Eldridge from her coma dragged out (there sure were a lot of emails back and forth about waking her up), but I’ll be interested to see where that subplot goes in future books.

Jennie: I was interested because I find her interesting as a character, though there’s something terribly sad about her Rip Van Winkle existence. I’m curious to know more about her, too.

Janine: I’m betting on her being a heroine in a book or a novella.  I wonder if she’ll end up with one of the Arrows?  But this is all speculation on my part.

To sum up my feelings about Tangle of Need, while it had its flaws, there was much I appreciated about it.  It was a good book, but not among my big favorites in the series.  Grade:B-.

Jennie: I’d give it a B-/C+.