JOINT REVIEW: Last Guard by Nalini Singh
Jennie: A few statistics –
Number of Psy/Changeling novels including the Trinity series: 20
Number of Psy/Changeling Trinity books: 5
Number of books in the series Janine and I have reviewed together: 9 including this one
Chapter 1 of Last Guard opens with our heroine, Payal Rao, being described as “fundamentally defective” and akin to a psychopath by a business rival. Payal is an old-style Psy, allegedly without emotion. (Let’s see how long that lasts.) She’s also a cardinal telekinetic and CEO of Rao Conglomerate, a family business based in Delhi (her father and her brother, Lalit are the other major players in the business).
Payal is surprised (as much as she can feel surprise, I guess) to receive a message on a secret email account from Canto Mercant, who identifies her as a “hub-anchor” for her section of the PsyNet and goes on to state that he is also a hub-anchor and aware that Designation A – the Anchors – are all under extraordinary strain. He proposes a meeting to discuss the crisis.
The action then switches to “before”, some 30 years earlier. Two children, a boy designated 7J and a girl known as 3K are in a Psy…school, I guess, but more of a prison for Psy children who are considered “defective” or unwanted by their families. The boy 7J (who is Canto Mercant) is being attacked by a teacher, an attack that the girl 3K (gosh, I wonder who *that* could be?) ends by sticking a shiv in the teacher’s jugular vein.
In the present, Canto uses a wheelchair due to the tumors on his spine that led to him being deemed unacceptable by his father. Psy technology allows for a “full-body robotic brace designed for bipedal motion”, but it makes Canto feel like “he had insects dancing on his spine and buzzing in his brain.”
After the incident at the school, Canto was whisked away by his maternal grandmother, Ena Mercant, who he had previously never known. Canto’s mother, Magdalene, had entered into a contract with Canto’s father to give birth to their child and turn him over after delivery. The Mercants being a close-knit family, even while under Silence, Ena questioned her daughter’s decision but ultimately did not step in until she realized her grandson was being abused.
When he was rescued, Canto was angry, especially at Magdalene, but he has grown into an empathetic man with strong connections to his grandmother, mother and cousins, Silver and Arwen. His biggest regret in life is that he was never able to find 3K, the girl who saved his life.
Janine: I really liked the 3K / 7J backstory; the connection between the two kids was palpable. That’s something Nalini Singh excels at. She can get me emotionally invested in a new (even minor) character or a just-introduced relationship within less than a page. Their imprisonment for being “defective” and especially the way their names were replaced with a letter and number made me think of Holocaust victims and made even a kindness like young Canto giving the child Payal food (when he himself was starving) resonate with me as an act of resistance.
Jennie: Back in the present, Canto and Payal agree to meet at a desert oasis, a secluded spot where they can talk Anchor business privately. When they do, Payal recognizes him immediately as her childhood friend and ally, due to “telekinetic memory,” which is a quality I’m guessing won’t ever be mentioned again in these books so I’m not going to remember it. Canto is shocked, naturally, and has an emotional reaction to finding 3K again. Payal controls her own feelings with merciless discipline, and the two discuss Designation A and how it fits into the turmoil of the PsyNet.
I’m sure As have been mentioned before but of course *I* don’t remember when, where, why or how.
Janine: I think they first came up in Max and Sophia’s book, Bonds of Justice (eighth in the original series).
Jennie: A lot of their story felt like Empaths Redux. A designation forgotten or discounted turns out to be critical to saving the Psy race, but they face their own challenges in achieving their goals.
Janine: I can see the similarity but also many differences. The Anchors’ power comes with another, more active and visible one, so they’re appreciated, just not for their A ability. They weren’t killed or brain-wiped merely for having the A ability, either. It doesn’t contravene the once-sacred principle of Silence, so it was never reviled in and of itself, though the side effects it has on 60% of them were.
Jennie: In the case of the Anchors, for various reasons they’re not nearly as numerous as they used to be. The frequent upheavals caused by the rot on the Net and the machinations of series baddie The Architect mean that Anchors are stretched thin, worn out and exhausted from their duties – duties the rest of the Psy world seems oblivious to.
This did not make sense to me. I do understand that the Psy as a race have a habit of not dealing with the parts of their history and their characters that they decide at any given time (such as during Silence) aren’t convenient or palatable. But at the same time, the Psy are a thinking, logical race – that point is driven home throughout the series and contrasted to the Changelings, who are more the “feeling” types. But we’re told, essentially, that the Ruling Coalition – the group now in charge of the Psy world – just kind of forgot about Anchors, because Anchors tend to not want attention and they just do their jobs in the substrate of the PsyNet. The Ruling Coalition is led by Kaleb Krychek and Nikita Duncan, among others – two Psy that I can’t imagine forgetting ANYTHING, especially a whole Psy designation that it just so happens is majorly responsible for keeping the PsyNet functioning and every Psy on Earth alive.
This becomes even less believable when you remember that it’s not like the Ruling Coalition isn’t aware of what a disaster-waiting-to-happen the PsyNet is – that’s been a major focus of these books. So wouldn’t they be combing through every designation, trying to figure out who can do what and how they can help?
Janine: Yes, that was ludicrous and made me roll my eyes.
Anyway…the relationship between Payal and Canto intensifies quickly, and while Canto is definitely one of those “all in from the first moment” heroes Payal is considerably more reserved, with good reason. She has not had the luxury of growing up with a family like the Mercants; her father is an emotionally sadistic monster and her brother even worse (actually taking his sadism to physically hurting others).
Janine: Yes, and Payal has to keep her beloved teenage sister, Karishma, hidden from them so they won’t kill her.
Jennie: Payal has had to be on alert essentially her whole life, and so she has trouble dealing with Canto’s small kindnesses, such as always giving her food (a callback to their childhood friendship, when he used to slip her food secretly).
I found Payal more interesting than Canto, probably because she was more troubled and had experienced a more challenging life. I think particularly in the Psy/Changeling world, it works better for me to have the female protagonist be the one who needs to be “fixed” – the gender dynamics often bug me when the heroine is the “soft” one of the two (and in my recollection most, though not all, of the books have had a dynamic where one of the characters is the one who clearly needs to be fixed in order for the HEA to work). I have had issues with the macho nature of the heroes (particularly the Changelings, but Psy heroes can be alpha in their own way), so Canto, while certainly masculine, is probably more my type of a Singh hero.
Janine: The heroes in the Trinity series aren’t as domineering or obsessed with wiping out another race for the sake of love as their counterparts in the original series, and the heroines’ abilities get to shine more in these new books. I appreciate the last two things to the bottom of my heart, but will you hate me if I confess that though the bossiness drove me crazy when it verged on patronizing or led to a display of supposed superiority (Hawke comes to mind here), I think it could sometimes be hot and I miss the flying sparks?
Jennie: Oh, I know that’s an aspect that’s appealing to the vast majority of romance readers – there’s a reason the alpha hero exists and is so omnipresent. I think I’ve always liked it less than the average romance fan, but I do understand the appeal.
Janine: To get back to this book, I agree that Payal is (by far IMO) the more interesting one. Singh takes some risks there; this is a very different kind of heroine for her. Payal has Zaira’s chaotic darkness and badass violent tendencies (both were caged children who killed their captors) and Silver’s not-a-hair-out-of-place exterior coolness, but in Payal the latter is closer to iciness. That’s new for Singh, I think. Generally, her heroines are warm.
The cold, flawlessly unemotional exterior is Payal’s way of imposing order on her violent and chaotic emotions. Ice on the surface, lava underneath. This combination places her in territory traditionally coded as male in romances (she’s even a CEO) and in our society. I thought her cold, edgy darkness was great.
Canto is warm, sweet, and occasionally grumpy. It’s hard not to like him but he’s pretty straightforward and doesn’t have Payal’s charisma. Supposedly the reason he prefers for her to represent the Anchors was that he doesn’t have patience for political bullshit but it’s not like Payal is Ms. Diplomacy. I kept watching out for his lack of patience but he had more of it than Payal did.
Jennie: Yeah, that aspect didn’t quite ring true. Though I liked that they both clearly brought strengths to not just the relationship, but the partnership.
Janine: Me too. Still, I always find it odd when Psy characters who were never Silent turn up. Silence was so pervasive, we were told in the earlier series, that a hint of being other than Silent could get your brain wiped. You couldn’t even openly show kindness without putting in danger not only your life but also the lives of the people you were kind to. Canto is thirty-nine, so what rock did he hide under? I never got a sense that he behaved any differently under Silence than he does now, afterward. Did you?
Jennie: I kind of assumed that the awesome power of the Mercants and his own tendency to keep to himself protected him. But you have a good point. Particularly as he seemed to have such a laissez-faire attitude towards never being Silent.
What did you think of Payal and Canto as a couple, Jennie? I liked them.
I could see in that scene that their relationship really worked and also how it would continue to successfully work in the future. I read Payal as the more dominant one and I thought that was really interesting. In that regard, it was an unusual dynamic for Singh.
Jennie: I did like them as a couple. They had an undeniable connection from their previous relationship as children, and since I liked Payal so much I enjoyed watching her blossom under Canto’s care.
Janine: Me too.
Jennie: The continual thread to the PsyNet storyline…continues. The Architect pops up to “mwah ha ha” a couple of times, and a few events threaten the stability of the Net further.
Janine: One of the things I’ve struggled with when it comes to the Trinity series, in particular, is that there sometimes isn’t enough conflict to absorb me as deeply as the books in the original series usually did.
This book did accomplish it. There was more than one conflict here that snagged my attention. Foremost was the internal conflict within Payal’s heart and mind—obedience to her father in defense of her sister’s life and her own vs. allowing herself the freedom to love Canto. There are also conflicts relating to multiple other people or situations that require her to prove herself. In some cases it’s her life at stake, in others her future with Canto, in others still the Anchors being heard and treated justly, and finally the fate of the PsyNet itself.
It’s partly because it all rests on her shoulders that she’s such a compelling character. So, though I’m often bored when there’s almost no romantic conflict between the main characters and I did want slightly more of it even here, the other conflicts mostly made up for it. Thoughts?
Jennie: I think lack of h/h conflict used to bother me more than it does today. And as you note, there are enough external conflicts that threaten the HEA to keep me involved in the story.
Janine: I think maybe I communicated badly. Years ago it would have bothered me more too. It was more a question of whether you usually feel that kind of conflict is completely unnecessary in any romance, and if not, if you still typically like a little, how does this book work or not work in light of that? Did it impress you that an entirely external-to-the-relationship conflict worked so well, or was it not even slightly remarkable in your regard?
Jennie: Hmm. Let me think. I guess it is notable – I still prefer some level of internal h/h conflict. But I also think that I impose these “rules” about what I like and don’t like, and those rules can easily be blown away by superior writing and characterization. So I think it’s kind of a balancing act. I do think the lack of conflict between Payal and Canto might’ve made the story a bit dull if there weren’t all of those other issues swirling around.
As is often the case, the description of what they do was hard for me to picture. They work in the “substrate” – another aspect I don’t remember ever being mentioned before.
Janine: I think the substrate’s new. I sometimes like learning new things about the PsyNet; it’s an expansion of the world and it makes it more interesting. At other times my eyes glaze over when some aspect of the Net is explained. It can be hard to visualize and that makes it abstract.
Jennie: I have mixed feelings about it – since I’ve never been able to picture a lot of how the PsyNet works, new aspects sometimes feel like a burden to me – something else to learn and try to understand. I also sometimes feel like Singh is just making it up as she goes along, which makes me uneasy.
Janine: Speaking of picturing and imagery, I noticed many clothing descriptions in this book. So many. A certain amount of description is good and necessary in every book but it doesn’t need to focus on outfits so frequently. Most of the time, the clothes don’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the characters who wear them. C’mon Singh, mix it up more.
Jennie: I did as well, but I sort of thought that was typical of Singh? I definitely don’t find it necessary. I wonder if Singh (and other authors who do this) are more visual writers and lean towards descriptions of clothing to set the scene for themselves?
Janine: Yeah, it’s typical of her books. :-/ I have theories too but I’ll save them for the comments.
Jennie: Over the past 20 books, I’ve gotten used to certain aspects of the Psy/Changeling world – a lot of repetition of phrases (here, it’s variations on “we’re Anchors, this is what we do”), hyperbole (a character making a statement that isn’t even that shocking has her words described as “massive boulders crashing into the earth”), and reuse of themes.
It’s the last one I’m still struggling with in this book. I didn’t mind the similarity between the emergence of the Anchors to that of the Empaths – there are a lot of differences there as well.
But this is another book where true love is threatened by one of the protagonists’ potential death (Janine and I talked in the last review about how many times either death or insanity has faced one of the main characters in the series).
Janine: You know, when it comes to the ubiquity of the impending death trope, I think I’ve arrived near the point you did when you finally made peace with those other irritants. I don’t like it, but I’m starting to feel like I’d rather resign myself to it than grind my teeth every time it comes up. It’s one of the many reasons I prefer her Guild Hunter books, though. There’s plenty of that there as well, but overall, the plot conflicts in those books are more varied.
Jennie: I totally get that. At a certain point with some of these tropes complaining about it feels like going to a Shakespeare tragedy and whining about all the deaths – like, you know what you signed up for, right?
Janine: I can’t finish this review without mentioning how much I enjoyed Kaleb’s appearances in this book. As ridiculous as his and the council’s ignorance about the Anchors was, I was glad when one of the characters told Kaleb that he wasn’t all-knowing and all-seeing, because too often in this series he’s been portrayed as exactly that.
Biggest, baddest, bestest gets old for me eventually.
And briefly, I’ll express my feelings on the Anthony and Nikita front…when are we going to get that promised Anthony and Nikita novella? I don’t care that much about Nikita, but I’ve wanted a story for Anthony for at least a decade now.
Jennie: So, a grade…maybe a B? B-? With long series it becomes difficult for me to judge individual books because there’s too much history for me to separate the book and view it as a stand-alone. I’m going to go with B/B- for Last Guard.
Janine: The tone of this book was a bit monochromatic but even so, it was my second favorite book in the Trinity series (after Ocean Light). There were multiple exciting points in the story for me, including Payal and Cato’s first meeting as adults and many others that involve spoilers.
Basically, I just found the atypical (especially for Singh) Payal enjoyable and entertaining to read about. This was a B for me.