Thursday, December 4, 2014

Archangel's Blade, (Guild Hunter #4) by Nalini Singh

Honor is a Guildhunter, but after a horrendous experience at the hands of some deeply sadistic vampires, she has been unable to leave the guild for a long time, hiding from the outside world. When Sara, the head of the guild, comes to her with a job to consult with Dmitri, head vampire in the city, she’s not sure she is ready to face vampires again. Especially not one and dangerous and sexual as Dmitri.

Dmitri needs Honor’s expertise to help solve a code that may be the key to an odd murder – and uncover something deeper behind it. Together they can both tend old wounds and seek to finally resolve their painful pasts.

This book has an excellent continued theme of revenge and agency with Honor. She feels no shame for wanting vengeance and she’s very clear about claiming that vengeance herself, as is Dmitri in giving it to her. While Dmitri always wants to protect and shelter her, he recognises and respects her need to be involved in hunting down the vampires that hurt her, her need to confront the places that may trigger her and her general need to be involved in avenging herself. She can be violent and cruel in her pursuit of vengeance and she isn’t shamed for that either – her rage isn’t presented as something evil or toxic or wrong – she is allowed to be angry, her anger is respected and she doesn’t have a super-touching moment of epic forgiveness to prove she’s one of the good guys (thankfully).

But at the same time we have a nice conflict with her stopping Dmitri from going over the edge, from stopping him using vengeance as an excuse to become more brutal and sadistic. It’s a complicated nuance which I think the book generally gets right – both accepting that a certain level of brutality is necessary to control sadistic immortals and accepting Honor’s right to want revenge while also understanding there are lines you can’t cross and things Honor doesn’t want Dmitri to do to further compromise his battered morality. I think it’s a really hard balance to get right but they manage it well.

Also providing a nice contrast is Dmitri’s own buried demons and plot for revenge – he’s still haunted by his losses but he is that rarest of Urban Fantasy characters – someone who is over it. Ok, not entirely, but it’s nice to see someone who was wronged a thousand years ago who HASN’T spent the last thousand years seething in a corner.

The two plot lines themselves worked really well together for the most part. There were moments when I couldn’t quite decide if the person they’re tracking down is part of Honor’s revenge plot or Dmitri’s revenge plot but it usually sorted itself out quickly. The pacing kept moving and when we ducked into emotional asides they didn’t derail the plot completely which is a relief. There is, perhaps, a bit too much recapping (and I really didn’t like the ending but no spoilers) but generally it worked, it flowed and kept me reading happily throughout without once wanting to strangle everyone. This is an achievement

As can be guessed, every character here has a traumatic past. It’s paranormal romance, everyone has a traumatic past – your post man lost his pet hamster in a freak letter avalanche, your window cleaner is desperately torn up by his hydrophobia – it’s a genre staple. I do have an issue with how the trauma of both characters are represented because they follow the same gendered paths that we’ve seen not only with Ellie and Raphael, but also repeatedly throughout the Paranormal Romance genre. Dmitri, the man, is traumatised – so he’s rough and tough and harsh and disconnected and cannot open himself up and be vulnerable until a nice warm, moist female… heart brings him back to love and warmth and joy. While Honor, deeply traumatised by her experiences, was broken and fragile and vulnerable and can barely bring herself to leavethe Guild building and is tormented by nightmares and overwhelming fear until she rebuilds and learns her strength again

And, don’t get me wrong, Honor’s strength, Honor’s rebuilding of herself, Honor’s experience with trauma is all really excellently done. I love how this series handles mental illness so far, it has been a very vivid depiction of people trying to recover from severe trauma. But that reservation about the very gendered tropes I see remain and I’m also not a big fan of how everyone decides to help Honor – there’s a lot of people deciding, “for her own good,” that she needs to be forced to confront her fears or out into the action again. I can understand wanting to encourage Honor to come out of her shell and seeking help – but if these people found an arachnophobic, they’d throw spiders at her. If they found an agoraphobic shut-in, they’d knock her house down. It’s not ideal and it feeds into the whole “you’re just not trying enough” meme of mental illness.

On top of that we have the same problem with “seduction” that we’ve had with Ellie as well: these big sexy men decide that the best way to deal with these strong but traumatised women is to dance all over their vulnerable spots. This is a habit that needs to be broken

Which is a shame because the actual depiction of Honor’s mental illness, recovery and general strength is excellent especially as it relates to the themes of revenge and agency I’ve already mentioned. And while the romance continues to have many of these problematic elements, especially early in the book, we do also have Dmitri and Raphael clearly setting out consent as necessary and that even using Dmitri’s sexy-compulsion smell as removing that consent.

Honor’s closest and greatest friends are women and they have a genuine, strong relationship full of mutual respect and care. They’re not sidekicks, they all very clearly have their own lives and goals, but they’re there for her and she for them. On top of that we also have Sorrow’s developing storyline, another conflicted and complicated female character who, along with Ashwini, I’m sure we’re going to see more of. I also want to see more of Vivek, he’s a disabled character who is mentioned and has made small appearances in every book so far – he definitely has a character and a personality, I’d like to see more from him and have him be a more involved part of the story because he does have a story to tell.

I am not entirely sure on Dmitri or Honor’s race – but I’m leaning towards them both being POC by most of their descriptions; it could be clear but by the end of the book it piled up to be more than likely. Beyond the protagonists, this book – this series – presumes racial diversity; we don’t have the odd exception POC thrown in here and there for tokenism. There are POC at every stage in society – the Archangels, the angels they meet, Raphael’s 7 (his chief deputies) has Venom, Jason, Dmitri and Naasir who are POC, the various vampires are often POC, humans at every level of society, hunters – racial diversity is the norm everywhere. Illium and Raphael are the most prominent White characters in this book and they are far less prevalent than they were in previous books.

LGBT characters are more fraught… we don’t have complete erasure as in the past books, but we have problems. We have mention of gay men – but the characters are either dead or never appear, the ultimate Gay Marris; they’re not characters, they’re just mentioned names. Then we’ve got a series of highly ambiguous possibly bisexual characters. Like one character is mentioned to use his looks to his own advantage against men and women, but there’s no suggestion of his actual orientation, just that he uses his looks as a weapon. Or there’s a woman whose tastes run to a certain body type of women, but it’s left fuzzy as to whether that “taste” is sexual or predatory blood-wise. On top of that ALL of these characters are sexually depraved, sadistic monsters including some added incest for extra vileness. So it’s a case of ambiguous – and if we can definitively say “yes, they’re bisexual” then… that’s not a good thing.

I was curious with this book and the direction it took – moving away from the Archangels, moving away from Ellie and generally moving the focus of the book away from the epic events that have been rather consuming before now. It was something this story needed, it’s easy to get a series bogged in epic events and then feeling the need to out-do the epic each new book in some kind of strange, apocalyptic one-up-manship. This book showed that we could have more low key stories and less all-powerful characters and still get a compelling story from this world and not one that relied entirely on romance. Not to say the romance isn’t a major element – but a lot of paranormal romance series feel like we’re telling the same story, just different characters over and over again – the fact this romance had a solid beyond-romance plot as well really helped break that feel and leaves me intrigued for the next book.