JOINT REVIEW: Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh
JOINT REVIEW: Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh
Jennie and I have reviewed three novels from Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series together in the past. When we heard about Wild Embrace, her collection of four novellas set in the Psy-Changeling world, it seemed natural to review the novellas together. –Janine
Echo of Silence
Janine: This novella, told
entirely mainly from the POV of Tazia Nerif, takes place years before the fall of Silence and begins in the deep sea station of Alaris. Tazia is an engineer aboard the station, and she reports to Stefan, a teleport-capable telekinetic psy who oversees the station.
As a psy, Stefan is Silent, incapable of feeling emotion. So it is curious that he is the first to notice Tazia’s disappointment each time the mail arrives and there is nothing in the shipment for her.
Tazia comes from a desert village with a small, traditional community. Tazia’s accomplishments exceed those of anyone else there, but she became estranged from her family when she chose her career over the marriage her father had arranged for her. She has since made written overtures to her family. Each time the mail arrives, she hopes for a reply.
When Stefan confronts her over her disappointment and the way it causes her to snap at others, he tells her to accept that the package she is hoping for will never come. But accepting this hurts Tazia so much that she becomes withdrawn, and Stefan approaches her again. She tells him that he took her hope away, and for a moment, sees something in his eyes that shouldn’t be there.
Soon after that, Tazia, Stefan, and a third crew member, Andres, are sent up for mandatory shore leave. Andres’ family surrounds him with love, leaving Tazia heartbroken. Stefan asks her how she’ll spend her shore leave, and when Tazia reveals she plans to spend it alone, he suggests she come with him on a mission to assist earthquake survivors. Tazia agrees.
The quake, as it turns out, hit a desert community not unlike the one that Tazia came from. Working together and sharing a tent, Tazia and Stefan each make sure the other doesn’t exhaust or starve him or herself. And gradually, Tazia and Stefan fall in love.
But Tazia’s traditional upbringing has stayed with her, and makes giving herself to a man outside of marriage unthinkable. And marriage, for a psy like Stefan, is impossible. If it’s discovered that he feels anything for her, the psy will re-condition Stefan and turn him into a vegetable. Can Tazia and Stefan find a way to be together despite these obstacles?
What I loved about this novella was that it featured a psy character during the time of Silence, and one who couldn’t defect from the PsyNet as Faith and Sascha did. Between Stefan’s need to appear completely Silent and Tazia’s traditional upbringing, the emotions in this novella were suppressed and understated. I loved that. The fact that they were hidden from others made them no less powerful – if anything, it heightened their impact.
Jennie: Yes! This was my favorite novella in the book by a long shot, and a welcome respite from the Changelings. I agree that the muted emotions really heightened the romance and made the story unique and engaging.
Janine: We’ve talked before about the big emotions that are a trademark of Nalini Singh’s writing. I often enjoy them, but here I so appreciated reading something quieter from her.
Jennie: As someone who is burned out on the over-the-top emotions of the Changelings, I loved the subtlety in this story. We see Tazia and Stefan fall in love slowly, and it’s something to savor.
Janine: Tazia was a wonderful character, bright, determined, and vulnerable at the same time. I loved the way she’d followed her dreams despite pressures to the contrary from her society.
Since we didn’t have Stefan’s POV Since we didn’t have as much of Stefan’s POV as we had of Tazia’s, especially at first, he was less transparent, but that too was a good choice for this story, since wondering what was going on with him added to the romantic tension.
Jennie: I totally agree. Tazia was so resilient and brave in the face of her loneliness that I really felt for her.
Singh did a great job of showing Stefan through Tazia’s eyes, so I didn’t mind
not having having less of his POV.
I also really liked the different setting, and the descriptions of the markets Tazia and Stefan visit and the foods she gets him to try – such a vibrant world, and yet there’s an edge of bittersweetness because as a psy, Stefan is vulnerable to sensory overload and can’t entirely embrace all that world has to offer.
Janine: Yes, that bittersweetness was a lovely touch, a nice counterpoint to their joy at finding one another. It was also echoed by the resolution to their relationship, since they would have to wait for the fall of Silence to reveal their feelings publicly.
I do have a few caveats. First, there are a couple of flaws in the logic of the story. The quake is big, yet doesn’t seem to affect Tazia’s village, which isn’t far away. Stefan is considered too flawed to be an Arrow by the Psy Council, which made me wonder how he attained a position as the leader on a deep sea station. But these are minor quibbles for me.
Second, the one thing that truly annoyed me slightly isn’t a flaw in logic, but rather something that involves a spoiler.
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
Janine: This is one of my favorite works by Nalini Singh. I’m giving Echo of Silence an A-.
Jennie: It’s an A- for me as well!
Janine: This story is very short and begins in Dorian’s childhood. Young Dorian climbs into a tree and refuses to come down, even when his mom tries to coax him with his favorite dish. Then Lachlan, Dorian’s alpha, commands him to climb down and takes him for a walk.
Dorian has just been made fun of by visiting kids from another pack for his inability to shift into leopard form. Lachlan tells Dorian that things will be harder for him than for his friends, but that he is strong enough to make the rank of sentinel despite his disability, and Dorian makes a decision. He will never allow anyone to make him feel bad about the fact that he’s latent.
This story is so short that I don’t want to spoil where things go from here. There were a couple of moments that touched me, such as Clay’s role in a scene that takes place in Dorian’s teens, and another scene between Dorian and Lucas that comes late in the story.
Overall, though, this story feels like it lacks a middle. That’s because the conflict is whether Dorian’s difference from the others – his inability to shift into leopard form – will make him feel set apart, yet the story skips over the scene in which Dorian shifts for the first time.
Jennie: I thought it was an odd story and it felt almost more like an Easter Egg intended for Dorian fans than a complete story.
Janine: Agreed. While the whole point of the story is that shifting isn’t what makes a pack member, it still feels like something important is missing, and readers new to the series might feel that sense of something missing even more keenly. We get the before and after, Dorian’s latency first, then his capacity to shift, but the transformation isn’t explained or shown.
Jennie: It’s nice to have the message that latent pack members are fully pack and whole, but that point is undermined by having Dorian develop the ability to shift. I understand the impulse to “heal” the hero, but it’s kind of wanting to have it both ways if your message is that he’s not sick to begin with.
Janine: Yes! I agree (and have the same reservations about Elena’s friend Vivek in Singh’s Guild Hunter series, whose paraplegia is likely to be healed by his transformation into a vampire). I’m sure some readers find it romantic that Ashaya was able to heal Dorian, but I think it takes something away from the message we’re supposed to get from his character.
To get back to the earlier topic, I suspect that the scene in which Ashaya does that is missing from this story because that scene can be found at the end of Hostage to Pleasure, but it’s been many years since I read it.
Jennie: Yeah, I remember very little about that book, except I think the heroine is the one with the crazy twin sister, right?
Janine: Yup. Dorian’s transformation is the last scene in Hostage to Pleasure. Without that scene at its center, Dorian feels more like a few vignettes strung together than a full story.
Jennie: Anyway, this was a C for me.
Janine: Me too. So far we’re in agreement. C.
Partners in Persuasion
Janine: Readers of the Psy-Changeling series have sometimes expressed frustration with the plethora of dominant heroes and the dearth of submissive ones. Partners in Persuasion, which pairs a submissive hero and dominant heroine, is a change of pace from that.
Jennie: Felix is a wolf, his pack’s horticulturist, and submissive. Desiree is a leopard soldier, dominant, and on her way to becoming a Sentinel. The two encounter each other repeatedly as the wolves and leopards continue the collaboration and intermingling that has grown over the course of the series. There is a strong mutual attraction, but there are problems.
Felix is a former fashion model, beautiful and used to being desired, but he has had a bad previous experience with a dominant female who informed him, after he declared his love for her, that she would never consider a serious relationship with someone who wasn’t also a dominant. Felix notes, “…the facts of life: that while dominants often mated with submissives, it was usually a male dominant with a female submissive.” (I had Thoughts on this, which I’ll set aside for just a moment.)
Desiree doesn’t understand Felix’s hesitation when she puts out signals of her interest, and she’s in a tricky position: because of the natures of dominants and submissives, it’s considered very uncool and irresponsible for a dominant to pursue a submissive who shows no signs of reciprocating attraction. Still, she can’t quite keep away and they begin a push-pull dance that lasts for most of the story. First he tells her that he can’t be more than friends, then they tentatively decide to take things slow and see if they can make it work. The road to true love is fraught with obstacles, pretty much all of which have to do with Desiree being a dominant female.
This may be the story that satisfies those readers clamoring for submissive heroes, but it didn’t satisfy me. If anything, it reinforced my issues with the gender politics of the Changelings, and how frustrating and off-putting I find them. If female dominants are the equivalent of male dominants, if it’s not a gender thing but a dominance thing, than why have a female dominant/male submissive pairing be so rare? When you’re creating a fresh world with its own rules, why does it have to be made clear that even the strongest woman usually needs a man who can master her?
Janine: This novella was basically the flip side of the Cooper and Grace novella in the Wild Invitation anthology, Declaration of Courtship. In that one, Grace, a submissive, was initially terrified of Cooper and felt trepidation about falling for him. I got the sense from that story as well as this one that dominant male/submissive female pairings couldn’t be common either, because of the sheer amount of trust required by a submissive of either gender to enter a romantic relationship with someone who could use his or her dominance against the submissive partner if the submissive refused to do something the dominant wanted.
Jennie: Interesting – I haven’t read that novella. And while the dark side of dominant-submissive pairings was hinted at in this novella, I didn’t quite get that such pairings are rare across the board. Maybe it’s because on some level I equate the dominants and submissives of the Changeling world with real-life BDSM relationships. I’m hardly an expert on the latter, but my understanding of such relationships is that it’s rather the point to have opposites pair up.
Janine: From the way it is portrayed here, though, Felix’s submissiveness did not come across as a BDSM thing, and although it’s been a while since I’ve read it, I didn’t read the Cooper / Grace romance in Declaration of Courtship that way, either.
It’s a murky judgment though because Singh sure does the whole big, strong, bossy hero thing to sexy effect. The women in her books usually find these dominant males overpoweringly attractive, and their dominance in the hierarchy has something to do with it.
But at the same time, those are all described as dominant / dominant pairings, so I think the term “submissive” means something very different in the Changeling world than what it means in BDSM stories. I read it as a designation of position within a hierarchy somewhat similar to the type of hierarchy one might find among a wolf pack in nature. An order from a dominant pack member has a very strong effect on submissive changelings, as illustrated (quite effectively, I thought) in the scene between Felix and Hawke.
As for the rarity of dominant / submissive pairings regardless of gender, that was an inference on my part. Cooper thinks about how much courage Grace must have to love him in one of the recent books, so I didn’t read this type of pairing as a common thing.
Still, despite my seeing the rarity of such a pairing as having less to do with gender politics and more to do with hierarchy politics, the thought you quoted Felix as having undermined that notion considerably and though I wasn’t sure if that was actually the case or just Felix’s distorted view of dominant females talking, I agree with you that it muddied the water.
Jennie: At one point Felix thinks, “Just because he wasn’t dominant didn’t mean he didn’t have value. Every member of SnowDancer had value. That was why it was such a strong, stable pack.” It feels like a case of “thou doth protest too much”, in part because I’ve read similar sentiments in previous books. If the Changelings value all pack members equally, shouldn’t it be an unspoken fact rather than something that needs to be reiterated repeatedly?
Janine: I did think that Felix was trying to convince himself of his value, but I saw that as having to do with the rejection he’d suffered from his ex-girlfriend. He had risked so much in trusting her, and she had betrayed that trust by being so casual with his heart. And she gave his submissiveness as the reason that she didn’t value him, so it was understandable that he had doubts as to his own value because of it.
Jennie: Anyway, I liked Felix and Desiree fine as separate characters, and their HEA was ultimately believable. But I felt that centering the story around how difficult and even bizarre a female-dominant/male-submissive relationship is in the Psy/Changeling world exacerbated my issues with the Changelings’ gender politics rather than alleviating them.
Janine: While I understand your frustration, I have to give Singh credit for making Felix the hero of a romance. In all my years of reading paranormals and urban fantasy stories, I have never come across or even heard of a romance hero who was submissive in an outside-the-bedroom sense, so I saw that aspect of the novella as groundbreaking.
Not only that, Singh managed to make a hero who had no choice but to obey orders from dominants, including the heroine, very appealing. Felix’s care for his plants, his gentle sweetness, and his courage in trusting Desiree made him lovely as a hero.
Jennie: I did really like the descriptions of Felix’s profession and his love for the work he does!
Janine: Desiree was appealing too, and I liked her carefulness with Felix, but I did have a concern about their relationship. While I agree their HEA was believable, as was Cooper and Grace’s, with both stories I felt uneasy at the level of trust required by the submissive.
In this novella, there was a point (before the mating bond kicked in) in which Felix wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk away from Desiree. I wondered whether that would hold true even if she turned abusive. In a situation like that, a dominant wolf would be able to stand up for him or herself but I wasn’t sure if Felix could.
Anyway, despite that concern, I was impressed with this story. B/B+.
Jennie: My grade for Partners in Persuasion was a C-.
Janine: Okay, our opinions are starting to diverge!
Flirtation of Fate
Jennie: The last story brings together Kenji and Garnet, two SnowDancer wolves whose names are vaguely familiar to me. Readers of the series who have better memories than I do probably know a lot more about the two and thus may get more out of their love story. I liked it pretty well; it was my second favorite of the book.
Kenji and Garnet have a history, and when he sees her at the party celebrating their alpha Hawke’s mating, he can’t resist following her even though he knows he should stay away. The two of them run smaller Southern California dens that are offshoots of the main SnowDancer den in Northern California. As such they have to work together occasionally, and they’ve developed a relationship that’s half-sniping, half-flirting.
It wasn’t always that way. Growing up, Kenji was best friends with Garnet’s older brother, and an affectionate, constant presence in Garnet’s life. As they got older, stronger feelings developed, and on the night of her 21st birthday, Kenji was to be Garnet’s date for her birthday party. It seemed like their relationship was finally going to make it to the next level, but Kenji never showed at the party, and for the last seven years he’s been tearing his way through the female population of the pack.
Their encounter the night of Hawke’s party ends with kiss and a punch, leaving Kenji with a black eye. Three months later, he ends up at Garnet’s den on pack business, just as a fairly unprecedented event is discovered: a packmate has been murdered. Kenji and Garnet rush to the scene and try to make sense of what happened: a packmate named Russ is dead, and his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend is wounded, unconscious and seemingly responsible for the murder.
There are, in a way, two mysteries at the center of this story: who killed Russ? And why did Kenji stand Garnet up and break her heart? It becomes clear pretty early on that Kenji had some Big, Mysterious Reason that tortures him to this day. He still wants Garnet, but thinks he can’t ever have her.
I liked a few things about this story: first of all, a mystery is a change of pace from this author.
Janine: Heh. You should read the Guild Hunter books. They are almost all mysteries!
Jennie: Ooh, that may give me impetus to try them!
Second, it has the feel almost of a cabin romance, particularly after it starts to storm outside. Sure, there are a bunch of other characters in the den, so it doesn’t have that intense focus on two characters that a cabin romance has. But it worked well to have the majority of the story in a single setting over a short period of time (something that’s easier to do in a romance when the characters already have a history).
The fact that neither of the mysteries was particularly mysterious didn’t detract from the story that much. The solution to the murder of Russ was telegraphed a bit more strongly than it needed to be, but I think I would have guessed it anyway.
Janine: Yes, I guessed it too. Almost from the beginning of the mystery portion of the story, and for me it did detract.
Jennie: It was the same with the Kenji mystery – particularly if you’ve read romance for more than a minute and are familiar with the reasons a hero may push the love of his life away, it’s not that hard to guess.
Janine: Agreed. And can I just express my frustration with Kenji for this? I could maybe understand his reaction in the first few months after he broke off with Garnet, but not why it took him so many years to change his mind. Surely he was old enough to understand that Garnet deserved to hear everything long before the passage of several years? Not only did he underestimate her, but he underestimated his own worth, too.
Jennie: You know, I didn’t question it too much in the context of the story, but you’re right. I guess that’s evidence that the story sucked me in enough not to be bothered by details like that, which might normally bug me. (I did experience moments of aggravation with Kenji, because I knew of course that he was going to tell her, so his agonizing over it felt silly at times.)
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
Jennie: Ultimately, Flirtation of Fate was a nice little (almost-)lovers-reunited story, with a mystery thrown in to move the plot along. My grade for it was a B-.
Janine: I was more irked by it than you. It was more of a story than Dorian, so I suppose I should give it a higher grade for that reason, but in my case, it wasn’t even close to a contender for second favorite novella in this anthology. C/C+.
What is your overall grade for Wild Embrace, Jennie? Averaging out all my grades brings mine to a B-.
Jennie: Averaging mine puts me at a C+, so very close to yours, in spite of our divergence on those two stories!