Friday, June 20, 2014

Enslaved by the Others (H&W Investigations #6) by Jess Haines

Shiarra has been captured by Max at the end of the last book. It’s her worst nightmare, Royce’s worst enemy is now focused on her and has her in his clutches to use and abuse. Again. Not only is he sadistically trying to hurt Royce by proxy and proving his power over her, but he also intends to use her to undermine his old enemy.

Shiarra needs to escape – but she isn’t the only captive; her best friend and a lot of innocents are also held by the human trafficking Max. And Royce is limited in how much he can directly offer help without massive political fall out. Shiarra may need to make some dangerous alliances to ensure her – and everyone else’s – freedom.

This book had a lot of action and a lot of mental ruminations in Shiarra’s head – and I think it all worked because this book closed a chapter; a long running thread of the books has been closed and ended. I actually think the way it was ended was somewhat anticlimactic, but on the whole it worked – it worked because the build up, the action and Shiarra’s thoughts all brought things to a close. Shiarra seems far more resolved about Royce, there is no suggestion of the ending element (behold my desperate attempts to avoid spoilers!) persisting after this book.

Instead we have new hints – the wars that have been ravaging the supernatural community but have largely gone over Shiarra’s head – including the hostility between the werewolves she knows and Royce. And, of course, the consequences of this book – because it’s clear there will be some. The old has been really neatly closed and a whole new paradigm is now begging to be explored – I’m looking forward to that.

I am always wary whenever I read a plot line that involves the protagonist – especially a female protagonist – being captured and held at the mercy of a cruel, sadistic monster. It’s common to delve into the realms of torture porn and commoner still for us to enter the realm of sexual abuse and rape. I was braced for it to be graphic – and it wasn’t.

It wasn’t downplayed. Max is sadistic and cruel, a human trafficker, a slaver, who keeps a stable of people to be abused and fed upon as well as selling victims to other vampires for food. He definitely demands his stable both feed him blood and, likely, rapes them. He abuses Shiarra, he torments her, he forces her to obey him – but the cruelty was not gratuitous even when it was bad, it wasn’t lingered on and there was very little sexual aspect (one of the elements I didn’t like is Shiarra actually taking that as some kind of comment on her attractiveness – for a rather unpleasant “I haven’t been raped, oh my self-esteem”). The main aspect there was Max feeding on her which is very arousing in this world – but that is shown as horrifying. The fact that his fangs can get Shiarra all hot and bothered is something Shiarra finds repellent which contrasts so well with a genre load of supernatural sexiness. Yes he has fangs that can push anyone’s buttons and make them desperate for sex despite their normal wishes or whether they even want him – and that is a terrifying, horrible thing.

I have to admit, I spent a lot of this book being very very tense and waiting for Shiarra to do something that would make me break my tablet. Shiarra does not have a good history when it comes to making good decisions. I kept waiting for her to charge in on her own or to decide that Royce was evil after all, or to ignore the advice she’s been given or avoid her bodyguard or go back into danger rather than get help… It was an odd tension. A book that can create that level of on-the-edge-of-your-seat tension is usually pretty good – but does it count if it’s caused by the protagonist’s history of utter incompetence?

Which may have finally been broken! Yes, despite numerous opportunities and my constant worry, Shiarra was (largely) sensible in this book. It’s probably pretty sad that saying that a main character is largely sensible is high praise, but this is a genre where Spunky Agency abounds – especially for characters who don’t have any special powers. For some reason, the less woo-woo a character has, the more likely they decide arm wrestling vampires is such a wonderful idea. Shiarra is defiant when she can be, but sensible enough to know where the limits are. She’s determined and strong, but not reckless and foolhardy. She takes the chances she is given, even if it’s hard to do. She is loyal and caring for her friend and fellow prisoners – but not fool enough to let that loyalty overcome all common sense despite her desperate desire to do so. She does make deals and trust people who are unknown or very untrustworthy but this comes down to being in an extreme situation and needing to hang on any branch she can – and maybe she could turn on them later but that’s clearly not Shiarra and pretty understandable.

Shiarra has also developed a level of ruthlessness that means she sometimes accepts evil has to happen for them to win this war – it’s not the completely out there “ends justifies the means” morality, but she does accept that sometimes the lesser of two evils is the way to go. But she does still see the evil in doing things like altering someone’s memory – again, this genre has a lot of mind control from vampires being seen as a rather cool or nifty thing, or a common tool. Having it presented as an unconscionable violation is nice to see.

Gideon may be an interesting character depending on what develops – and the first LGBT character in the series who isn’t evil. Possibly. Of course, as a necromancer he is considered by many to be inherently evil and he has a track record of evil – so maybe “isn’t evil” is a step too far – but it’s entered my “wait and see” category rather than my “eye roll and snark” category, which is a step up.

Max may be a POC, one of his stable certainly is (though he’s named, it’s not much else) and we have Soo-Jin who is Korean and interesting. She has a fashion sense, a past and a personality but a lot more waits to be explored – on first glance I like her and think she’ll be a great friend for Shiarra. She’s also supernatural and a big thing is made of her hiding it – I guessed within 3 seconds of her appearing though (her fill name didn’t help). We could use some more development of her supernatural nature which is pretty narrow at the moment. We also saw Francisco, a Black vampire and apparently a major force – I hope we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

For me, this book did the job, neatly, efficiently, with no problems and considerable amount of fun. Shiarra has been solidified as a character – which is pretty much the what these first few books in the Others series has been – Shiarra finding her place among the Others and accepting it. Shiarra has grown from the terrified figure in book one, gone through her reckless angry phase and is now relatively competent, secure and cautious. Her evolution has reached a nice plateau and her connections to the other characters are now very much laid out and stable. The sides have been cast, the battle lines drawn, the world laid out - now the next chapter can begin – I’m really looking forward to it.