Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Nalini Singh - Psy/Changeling series review

Nalini Singh has created a fascinating world here. Set in the future, with technology that exceeds our own (albeit, not to a sci-fi extent), 3 types of human occupy the planet.

The humans are much like humans on our world – and rarely play a part in the story.

The psy are physically weaker than humans, but have incredible psychic gifts

The changelings are physically much stronger and faster – and can change into animals.

100 years ago the Psy made a terrible choice. In desperation and fearing the massive toll their abilities takes on their psyche and on the damage it causes to those around them, the Psy decided the only way they could be safe was to suppress all emotion in a policy they called the Silence. Through the Silence, all emotion would be stilled, Psy would become creatures of cold, practical logic without their emotions making them vulnerable to their psychic gifts or causing them to – by accident or design – harm others with their powers. For a group that could kill people with their minds – and frequently had often by accident – it was a blessed relief.

But after 100 years, some Psy are beginning to see not only how much they lost when they sacrificed their emotions – but also how massively Silence had failed to do the very things it set out to do and the Psy leadership and hierarchy has devolved into ruthless callousness

At the same time, the great changeling packs have been growing, organising and allying with each other. Psy still dominate the world, but the changelings are a growing second force – and a troubling one as their passionate natures awaken the long Silenced emotions of many Psy, just at a time when large cracks in Silence are forcing the Psy council to ever more desperate measures.

I have to say, it’s a fascinating world. I love this world setting and the plots that follow – following Psy-exiles as they work with the changeling packs both to develop their own long suppressed emotions, to relearn how to feel and to navigate both pack and Psy politics – and survive a defection that should mean death. Along with the growing tensions and shifts in the Psy world and among the Psy council and Silence is rocked, things are further complicated as the humans, the long silent group who are so often dismissed by the other 2, make their own play for power.

It makes for an incredibly absorbing, multi-faceted story with a great deal of depth, nuance and information to develop and devour. Every book is fascinating and draws me in and I’ve eagerly leaped from book to book desperate to see where the story goes.

There’s my positive. Unfortunately I have some negative.

Each book is, in many ways, a romance. There’s a fascinating plot in the background, a huge and deeply interesting meta-plot and an incredible world. But in the foreground are is a man and a woman – always a man and a woman (usually a changeling and a psy) – who meet, become fascinated, fall in twu lub. Which isn’t inherently awful, of course, but when you have this fascinating world and all this amazing politics and machinations, I do feel like the romance sometimes gets in the way of what is really interesting in these books. It’s a shame because I feel like a good half of each book is unrelated to what I’m actually interested in. It’s not as bad as Marjorie Liu, but it’s still pretty bad.

More, a lot of the romance is tiresomely similar, the same story is played out repeatedly with different players and, as I’ve said before on the tumblr, (here, here and here linked so I don’t have to go into detail) there are a lot of problematic tropes here.

The Psy women often have their Silence cracked due to aggressive and unwanted attention from Changeling men. They are touched even after repeatedly telling the men not to touch them, they are stalked, they have the men deliberately think detailed sexual things about them (as a Psychic race, this is akin to talking dirty to them) and frequently pushed out of their comfort zones over and over. Contrast that with the Psy man who breaks his Silence to help support and heal a traumatised Changeling woman.

It’s also tiresome that the women (Changeling, Psy and human) who have traumatic childhoods/pasts are weepy and fragile and delicate and need healing, while the men who have traumatic/tragic pasts are stoic and strong and tough (and it has to be said that nearly every single character in this series has traumatic/tragic pasts. Yes all of them). And the women are healed by their menfolks Strong Manly Support, while the Big Manly Men are softened by their women’s gentle loving. I could take it as common tropes because, sadly enough, society does have some screwed up gender roles in how men and women are ALLOWED to express pain and respond to trauma. But in every single case? It gets old.

And finally, the men being DANGEROUS is tiresome. All of the man, changeling or Psy, have to make their female partners scared, literally in fear for their lives, at some point in the story. In every last book at some point the woman thinks the man will kill her. How romantic. I think I’ve been getting this romance thing wrong, see I always go with thoughtful gifts, compliments and detailed attentive treatment but apparently nothing says true love like a good death threat.

So, yeah. On a less faily note, most of the cast are POC. And POC without having to mention it every other sentence (contrast with Anita Blake who feels the need to describe skin tone with every passing sentence). The Psy are also interesting in that, being emotionless, they often don’t form bonds and instead negotiate for fertilisation – and seem to deliberately include as many different races in their genetics as they can.

So to summarise? I like these books, no no I really do – the story and the characters are deep and fascinating. But the romance is both tiresome and deeply problematic and gets in the way of a damn good plot.

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