Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Archangel's Shadows (Guildhunter Series #7) by Nalini Singh

Ashwini was badly injured in the recent war that hit New York, and her new assignment seems something of a soft-ball compared to her usual fare. Thankfully, Janvier, the intriguing, sexy and very playful vampire who has often being her foil is there to make things more interesting and tempt her to move closer to him – despite the cruel future that she knows makes it impossible.

Of course, the wake of the war has made even a soft-ball investigation fraught – with the possibility of covert agents, the need for discretion to avert panic and the constant tension that threaten the city. Tension that Elena, trying to navigate the tides of Archangel politics, is all too aware of.

In some ways this book was very distracted – but that worked. After all, while this is a book that focuses on Ashwini and Janvier, there is still a lot going on in the world – the aftermath of the war, Elena and Raphael juggling the city and the other Archangels, ongoing covert warfare. I really like that these things haven’t just stopped because we’re focused on another story. This world is rich and involved and there’s a whole lot going on – and we simply cannot ignore the epic happening completely even if Ashwini and Janvier, unlike the other protagonists, are not on a high enough level to be directly involved. I love the fact that it manages to tell the story of the world, how this manages to continue to be Elena and Raphael’s stories – the core characters – even while the protagonist shifts. This is a wonderful switch from other long running series with shifting protagonists as it sometimes feels like every book completely ignores what has passed before. This isn’t just a story of Ashwini and Janvier – this is the story of New York, of the Archangel Raphael and and his consort Elena and a world wide brewing event.

I like the juxtaposition of both the epic, worldwide war and the more local issue – because just as the world-wide brewing war can’t be ignored for the sake of Ashwini and Janvier’s story, nor can local issues of ruling Raphael’s territory be ignored because of political machinations. Murders need investigating, people need to be saved, vampires have to be kept in line. On top of that there’s the inherent link between the meta story and this book’s plot – and not just covert agents trying to destabilise the territory – but even things like the war dividing the vampires who fought and those who continue to indulge themselves, or the fear of panic among the uneasy population and even the vampire’s growing aggression having recently been in combat.

Then there’s Elena’s continued growth as Consort – not just her personal skills but the way she’s learning the necessary etiquette and hosting, finding her own level with the other Archangels as well as Raphael’s household and even changing the way things are done in the territory with her new insights.

There’s also some really cute moments like all the vampires now buying blood from the business Elena’s invested in because they want her first venture to succeed and Janvier’s kind of cutely embarrassed about it. There’s some other nice world building developments – like the idea that we only see the worst of vampires because those less given to destructive proclivities simply don’t come to the attention of the Hunters and some more development of other Archangels (especially Titus). Lots of little bits that just complete this world in richer colour.

Put all this together and it should be impossible to balance – but it isn’t, it works and it all works as a whole rather than lots of disparate elements thrown together. The pacing is excellent, the way the elements come together is excellent and it’s just an altogether excellent continuation of the whole story – not just Ashwini and Janvier

Their story is well done, their mutual investigations benefit from both of them being there and there’s plenty of fun, action and competence from both. They’re both excellent at their job, both know it and both work really well together and their banter can be great at times. As the romance heated up I think there was a problem with them losing that edge of fun – Ashwini’s issues (which I’ll get to and wasn’t a fan off) completely deflated what made their interactions so great – their genuine sense of fun and amusement. Not just passion, but actual fun, actual enjoyment and it was a real shame that these random, eccentric and fun loving personalities couldn’t build a relationship on that without great big buckets of angst being dumped on everything.

They’re strong characters with powerful elements I like – but I feel like some strong romance clich├ęs have squished out the very elements that made them so original. Especially when we also take the original, highly amusing and alien figure of Naasir (with his excellent feline mannerisms) and add him to the mix. These three are amazingly fun together – and it’s sad to suppress all that by dropping buckets of angst on them because romance = tragedy.

Ashwini has a tragic past that is ongoing and I’m kind of in mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it’s really well done, it’s very personal to herself and her family and her current powers. It’s also more nuanced than the standard “I was kidnapped by bad people who did bad things to me and now I am sad” story. It’s well done on that score and it isn’t entirely cured just because she’s met Janvier and true love now strikes (not entirely). So, in itself, it’s not bad. But – yes there’s a but – this is the 7th book in the Guildhunter series and the same pattern is repeating. I’m beginning to have severe doubts about the Guild’s recruitment strategy. Is the first question on the application form “do you have a deep seated emotional trauma that continues to haunt you? Yes? Welcome aboard! No? Right, we’ll try to get you one of them as soon as possible.” It’s getting repetitive and I’m not entirely sure how much it added to Ashwini – either her special psychic ability (or even if her special psychic ability actually was that essential to the plot) or her characterisation or her relationship with Janvier. It was part of all, but I don’t think it was an essential part. I just hope when the next book comes we will have a character who isn’t carrying around a truck load of mandatory pain to work through.

As ever with this series, the racial inclusion is excellent. Ashwini and her family are of South Asian descent. We have Naasir playing a major role. Elena continues to be very much present and influential. Dmitri is always a force in the books and many of the other POC we’ve seen in the series make brief appearances. On top of that, this series continues to have the constant racial inclusion – it doesn’t rely on a few characters or a few major characters; inclusion happens among every group in every place, racial diversity is the norm and omnipresent, not confined to the designated tokens or a few characters.

I also liked the depiction of sex workers – presenting them as vulnerable without fetishising it or dumping epic amounts of pity on them and also doing a great job of humanising them and making the death much more poignant since it depicted a person, not just a random victim

Ashwini is also dyslexic and the disability has definitely coloured her experiences and made for an interesting new development and depiction of the character. Less ideal is the looming threat of mental illness playing the role as a fate-worse-then-death

On LGBT inclusion we have some of the ongoing problems – same-sex sex being either something mentioned but not shown or part of the many things ancient vampires/angels do because they’re bored/depraved/cruel/perverse – it’s really hammered home over and over again that when the immortal vampires/angels get very very old many of them get jaded and they do things to break that boredom – usually cruel, sadistic sexual things and this is when same-sex sexuality is depicted.

Which also really hurts the one time this series has tried to produce a non-offensive or Maris’d bisexual character –Keir. He’s an angel who is a healer, a caregiver – and support staff (which is a trope) but generally a not bad, albeit minor character. But when Elena asks him about his apparent attraction to men after having previously heard of his female lovers, Keir references his great age and love having many faces. He could have said “I’m bisexual” which would have been ideal – except he doesn’t mention his sexuality and instead references his age in a series where we’re repeatedly shown ancient beings getting bored and “experimenting” for their – usually perverse – amusement. The depiction is minor but only a little shaky – but the context is dubious to say the least.

I hope this book is a sign of how this series will continue – the hugeness of it, the constantly present meta, the multiple characters all coming together as a whole (and slowly expanding Elena’s guard) makes me really excited about the next book. I don’t think I’ve seen many series that do such a good job of telling personal stories but always keeping the world, the meta and the past characters all very present and meaningful; more like this, lots more!