JOINT REVIEW: Alpha Night by Nalini Singh
Alpha Night can be viewed as either the three hundred forty-second nineteenth book in Nalini Singh’s the Psy/Changeling series, or the 842nd fourth book in the Psy/Changeling Trinity series. Janine and I have reviewed eleventy-three seven Psy/Changeling books together, so when Alpha Night came out, I told her I would haunt her in the afterlife if she did not review it with me. – Jennie
Jennie: Alpha Night introduces the pairing of alpha wolf Selenka Durev, leader of the BlackEdge pack, and Arrow Ethan Night. Both have probably appeared in previous books in the series but I don’t remember them (Janine certainly will).
Janine: I remember Selenka. She was mentioned in the context of Kaleb and Valentin’s awareness of her and her occasional cooperation with them. And probably in other contexts too. An Arrow exhibiting emotionless behavior was mentioned in Aden and Zaira’s book but I’m fuzzy about whether it was Ethan.
Jennie: Selenka and Ethan meet at a symposium for Psy empaths in Moscow. She senses something in him right away, something that makes her “wolf’s fur stand up”, and he explains with the expressionlessness of a Psy embedded in Silence that he is “permanently (psychically) damaged”, an explanation that is unexpected and puzzling to Selenka.
Almost immediately after this Ethan foils a terrorist attack, using his unusual Psy ability – shooting a light beam out of his eyes that temporarily incapacitates everyone in the vicinity, except for Selenka (he pushes her face into his shoulder to protect her). They find an empath with a poison gas bomb attached to her body. Before those incapacitated even awake, Selenka saves Ethan from a second terrorist who tries to shoot him (she’s slightly injured in the process).
Though it happens very early in the book – the beginning of chapter two – I’m going to spoiler-mark this next part out of an abundance of caution.
Jennie: Ethan was diagnosed as “pathologically detached” as a child (while under the control of the evil Ming LeBon), which even he recognizes as ironic given that the Psy race at the time was mired in Silence. Ethan’s mental/emotional state is one of those amorphous concepts in the series (usually, but not always, having to do with the Psy and the PsyNet) that I couldn’t quite perceive.
Janine: LOL. They are often confusing, and in this case, absurd.
Jennie: How is his detachment different from the usual Psy coldness? He feels that he’s different and damaged, but how does he know, if he’s always been this way?
Anyway, in the chaos after the attacks, Ethan experiences intense emotion for the first time. He recognizes his fury at the idea that anyone would hurt Selenka. Selenka finds herself – particularly her wolf – incredibly drawn to this strange Arrow. Though both of them are nonplussed by it, particularly Selenka, who knows what a mating bond entails – there is no doubt for either of them that they are joined.
It was only in retrospect that I realized the whole first fourth of the book takes place at the symposium; it made for a bit of a slow start, though I suppose it was important to establish Selenka and Ethan and their separate relationships (Ethan does have relationships of a sort, with his fellow Arrows, though he’s never felt connected to them due to his condition).
Janine: On a related topic, the timeframe of the entire novel is very short, just a few days. Instant mating or not, it wasn’t entirely convincing that Ethan and Selenka came to mean so much to each other because it happened so quickly.
I agree with you that the symposium taking up a quarter of the book was probably necessary, but it made some of the exposition a little shoehorned—I’m thinking of the introduction of Selenka’s friend and lieutenant Margo.
Speaking of exposition, each chapter begins with excerpts from other characters’ past speeches or writings. Did there have to be one in *every* chapter? Some are interesting and enlightening but others tell us stuff we already know. I don’t see the necessity for those. And they can interrupt the action. For example one such excerpt comes in the middle of a two-chapter sex scene and it feels disruptive. Still, some are enjoyable.
Jennie: While still at the convention center, Selenka gets word that one of her most trusted lieutenants, Emanuel, has been hurt. She races back to the Warren, the wolves’ den outside of Moscow. It’s too late for Emanuel, who has been shot in an ambush. With the body is Kiev Durev, Selenka’s father, with whom she has a contentious relationship. His presence is suspicious and not adequately explained, but Selenka puts that aside to focus on putting her lieutenants on the trail of Emanuel’s killer, and on being the alpha her grieving pack needs.
Janine: I liked the subplot about Selenka’s father fairly well. So often in these books, and particularly when it comes to the changelings, parents and other family members are wholly loving and supportive. Selenka’s father was a very different kind of parent, very much outside that mold. His self-involvement made his parenting emotionally abusive. I can’t remember if there has been another parent in this vein in earlier books—maybe Nikita before we started seeing a more caring side of her?
I appreciated the way it was resolved, too.
The subplot also gave Selenka something personal to grapple with. The internal conflict that her dad presented (how much should she draw the line for the sake of her pack versus go easy on him because he is her dad) brought Selenka’s character traits to the fore. We saw how loyal and loving she was but also her vulnerability and her conscientiousness when it came to the safety and well-being of her pack.
Jennie: I just realized Selenka is dealing with a *lot* in the course of the book – identifying and neutralizing the threat to her pack, taking on the burden of grief the pack feels over Emanuel’s death, and accepting the huge change that is her mating with Ethan. And that’s before we even get to Ethan’s Issues.
Janine: Do you think the challenge of going through that much upheaval at once was adequately portrayed and emphasized? I would have liked more story tension in this book, especially in the first half.
Jennie: It just felt kind of rushed, you know? But that’s to be expected in books that take place over a short period of time. It adds intensity but it also can make everything feel a bit hurried.
Ethan believes he suffers from a Psy condition known as Scarab Syndrome, which is a “sudden increase in psychic abilities paired with erratic behavior, possible violent outbursts, hallucinations, and/or memory loss.” The syndrome is without a cure and sufferers must essentially be put down when they get close to crisis; if not they may attack others and cause great damage. I was annoyed that Ethan didn’t tell Selenka about this right away – it felt like there were artificial barriers to them having a talk about it, and it didn’t seem in Ethan’s character not to just blurt it out as early as possible.
Janine: Yes. Good point. One thing after another came up and interrupted them just as they were poised to have that talk. That felt clumsy.
More generally, Ethan was a discomfiting a character because of his lack of social adjustment. It makes sense that he would be like that, given his past, but I didn’t find it attractive. The whole “I’m yours no matter what you ask of me” thing was disturbing and almost robotic. Devotion is good, but slavish devotion, not so much. He did get more human and appealing as the book progressed, though.
Jennie: I liked how that was portrayed, through Ethan’s interaction with the dog and the wolf cubs in the pack.
So, we have another story in the series where one of the h/h pair believes that their romance is doomed because they’re going to die sooner rather than later. We have discussed the ubiquity of this plot point before. Sure, they are all a little different in their presentation, but it boils down to a variation on supposedly fatal illness. I do wish the author could come up with something else, but perhaps it’s harder when so often there is a “mating bond” aspect to these romances that makes it unlikely that anything *but* death would separate the h/h.
Janine: The “I’m losing my mind / I’m going to die“ thing has been done to death (sorry for the horrible pun) in this series, so at first, before we got into the specifics, it felt rote and cookie cutter. And as I’ve mentioned before, it doesn’t make sense that so many psy powers would be shrouded in mystery.
I’m going to contradict myself now by saying that in the second half, the external stuff, like the mystery of how Ethan’s power really works and the question of how he’ll keep from turning into a psychopath, as he believes he will, made the book more engaging. When I was about halfway through the book, I wondered if the novel would engage me in a more than cursory way. Thankfully, that got better in the second half. As worn as that trope is, the specifics of exactly how that will work out in each particular case often do interest me, and that was the case here.
Jennie: The story contains two villain subplots; one follows the Architect of the Consortium (the evil organization out to destroy the Good Guys’ Trinity Alliance), who is sowing chaos on the PsyNet and in the world, using Scarab Syndrome sufferers as weapons. She wasn’t that interesting to me, just another anonymous, coldly-mad-of-the-sort-we’ve-seen-before Psy baddie.
Janine: I agree.
Jennie: The other bad guy, slightly more interesting at first, is a wolf named Blaise. Blaise has formed a cult called Haven’s Disciples, made up of impressionable young Psy, changelings and humans. Though Selenka has reluctantly allowed the congregation to remain in her territory (at Emanuel’s behest; he sees himself in the undisciplined young wolves among the group), Blaise is a thorn in Selenka’s side; his group is often suspected of petty acts of vandalism meant to antagonize BlackEdge.
Janine: I agree that Blaise was only slightly more interesting and became less so as the book progressed. He wasn’t developed much.
Did you wish that Selenka had had to deal with more violent or devastating pack situations in her backstory, as the other changeling alphas had? For me the lack of something like that in her past made her seem, although capable, untested. She reminded me of two of my favorite changeling heroines, Mercy and Indigo, so I liked her, despite the fact that she read as more watered down than those two. But I wanted her to be as badass as her male counterparts.
Jennie: I didn’t feel like she was neutralized, at least, as some supposedly badass heroines are. But I agree that she felt watered down. I feel like Singh is married to certain tropes and character types in her writing, and it makes the series more repetitive than it needs to be, when there are all sorts of other characters and storylines that could be pursued.
Jennie: Alpha Night feels like an adequate entry into the series but not a remarkable one. Early in the original Psy/Changeling series, I had so many complaints about so many aspects of the books (gender issues! Psy=bad/Changeling=good issues!, histrionic prose issues!), but as I’ve probably noted in the last…many…reviews, time and tide have blunted the impact of these irritations. Which is a good thing, but I think there is an attendant feeling that there’s not much new here, either.
Janine: Yeah, I agree. The blurb for this book made it sound fresh and different. A suspicious Arrow, an alpha heroine, and a mating at first sight. All of these are new elements but they could have felt newer, had any of them been developed further, and / or presented more substantial conflicts.
Jennie: Recycling certain plot points doesn’t help. (Also, can’t someone just put Ming LeBon out of our misery? Why is he not dead yet?)
Jennie: There were a couple of things I will carp about because they bothered me mildly. One is that once again, in spite of the Moscow setting and the various diminutives of Selenka’s name that her pack-mates use, there is little about the characters that feels Russian. I know the Psy/Changeling world is different from our world, but I’d still love to get more details that give a sense of place – give me onion domes! Borscht! Anything!
Janine: I didn’t think of that but you’re right. Something like that would have made the book fresher. A lot of what made Ocean Light the standout in this sequel series for me was the change and differentiation of setting.
Jennie: The other issue was that I felt that Ethan’s loyalty was inconsistently portrayed.
Janine: Agreed! As I indicated above, I wanted greater internal conflict in the early part. The mating-at-first-sight thing could have been interesting, if, for example, Selenka felt uncertain about her wolf’s choice (Patricia Briggs does a great job with that in her novella Alpha and Omega). But there’s no conflict between Ethan and Selenka in this regard or in any other. For me that made the romance a bit meh, when it could have been powerful.
Also, it’s hard to describe, but to my mind these recent books lack a kind of all-or-nothing feel that the earlier ones have. I used to feel, with some of the earlier books, that the author had left nothing on the playing field. It was all there in the book. Recently I reread Caressed by Ice, my favorite, and the experience reinforced this conclusion.
Still, Selenka was a likeable character and her dilemma with her dad was something new. So were the cult and Selenka’s responsibilities to her pack—we haven’t seen a female character grapple with those. I felt, too, that Selenka and Ethan are more evenly balanced, closer to true equals than some of the other couples are.
Jennie: I was going to give Alpha Night a B right after reading it, but I think I’ve talked myself into a B-.
Janine: It’s C / C+ for me.