Monday, June 19, 2017

Shield of Winter (Psy-Changeling #13) by Nalini Singh

While Silence is falling, it may be too late to save the Net. The infection of the PsyNet is growing and catastrophic collapse is imminent - a collapse that could kill thousands. As it gets closer there are more and more Psy infected by darkness, driven to unreasoned and uncontrolled violence even as Psy society is learning how to live without Silence

Kaleb, leader of the net and former Councillor, can think of only one way to save the Psy - the key must be the Empaths.

He collects Empaths into a camp to learn how to overcome the trauma of being suppressed in the Net and try to find the extent of their powers after so much knowledge has been lost. And who better to protect them in a hostile net than the Arrow Squad?

Led by Vasic - broken by the demands the Arrows have placed on him, he is slowly awaiting death and not valuing his own life. But if anyone can reach him it’s the Empaths - specifically Ivy

While we followed so many trope laden romances over this series, in the background there has been another story developing - the Arrows. The Arrows have always been a really fascinating element to this series because they are the very epitome of what Silence was for - and the damage it did. All of them are Psy with lethal combat abilities - the very Psy who rely on extreme Silence training to control their lethal abilities. At the same time they are the Psy used and abused by the Council to enforce their reign, causing so many disappearances and deaths. Seeing them turn from Silence, even as they relied on it’s training was an excellent parallel to the actual fight for the future of the Psy Net. Seeing Aden worry about his people and trying to lead the Arrows to a new future and a new life - independent from those who constantly use and abuse them is, again, a wonderful microcosm of the actual net and the Psy race in general. There’s also Vasic, bowed, broken and wounded from the terrible deeds the Council has forced upon him, now just looking to end a life he no longer sees as worth living. Again - an excellent parallel to the wounds of the Psy Net and the many broken and damaged Psy who have been so torn by Silence

Their story, interlinked with Kaleb, the new de-facto ruler of the Psy, also shows the growing evolution of the Psy themselves - and not just in the loss of Silence or the battle against the Darkness Infection of the net. But simple things - in a society where inconvenient people are just disappeared (because actual Psy criminals would expose the lie of Silence), what does it mean in a new age when justice must be done in the light? When justice happens where everyone can see it? When you have a society where the most powerful and ruthless have always ruled, where people’s power is denoted by their inherent woo-woo, what does that mean for future rulership, what does a government look like? In a society where obedience and conformity has been ruthlessly enforced for nearly 100 years, how do they adapt to allowing actual dissent and disagreement? Where are the lines drawn?  In some ways  wish there were no romance at all in this book and we focused on the Arrows and Kaleb and Sahara alongside the other Councilors actually looking at what the future of the Psy should actually look like - because that is fascinating and just the elements that are hinted at here
I have to say i was also annoyed by this romance because of Vasic and Aden. We have seen repeatedly how deeply Aden and Vasic care for each other, how close they are - we have seen how worried and sad Aden is that Vasic is embracing death, how determined he is that Vasic won’t die, determined to show Vasic he is valued and cared for. I was looking forward to see them growing closer, for that love to become clearer, for Aden, who knows more than anyone exactly what Vasic has had to endure and suffer, to be the comforting arms that Vasic could fall into and be lifted up and…

And Designated straight love interest Ivy appeared. Oh. yay. And we had another book - now book 13 - without a single LGBT character so we can tell the same trope laden straight romance again and again.

And I have to complain yet again about the archaic gender roles in this series because they’re cringe worthy. How come the man always has to be the big dangerous alpha in control one? How come he’s usually the one with the big dangerous powers? Even when a woman has strength and power - like Mercy or Adria - she has to be paired with an even MORE Dominant man. And when she’s dangerous that means she’s desperate and fragile and needs a big strong man to save her like Sienna (note that the big strong dangerous men - Judd, Vasic - don’t get big, extra-dominant women to order them around. No, they get sweet, gentle, delicate and sometimes fragile women to shelter and be all protective and gentle with. Even Sienna was more dangerous to herself and had to be paired with The Most Dominant. I cling to Indigo, though even her and Andrew’s dynamic was hardly a subversion.

Not only have we got Shapeshifter biology supporting this rigid binary with big Alpha possessive males and “matriarchal” females but now the Psy are getting in on the action as well: apparently most Empaths are female. Because lovey-emotions-soft-gentle-healing while most telekinetics are male because big-strong-destructive-dangerous-heavy-lifting-chest-hair.

Why couldn’t there be a big dangerous telekinetic woman who is breaking things and covered in the blood of all she has slaughtered saved by the gentle, loving, patient Empathic man to find her heart and emotions. This is a world with amazing imagination, incredible world building, awesome character development, a history that is truly fascinating and is generally excellent in so many ways - so why - with all this excellent proof of imagination and creativity, are the romances and gender roles so cliched and tired and limited?

In addition to the whole gender roles thing, there was just nothing about this romance that stood out to me. Ivy in particular felt really under developed - I mean she’s had major issues with her broken silence, being rehabilitated, being Silent - but where is this? Beyond having a pet, where is Ivy? Who is this basically hollow she-cares-and-finds-Vasic-hot-despite-his-brokenness woman. Because we’ve seen pretty much that with Sahara (and Sasha, really maybe even Mercy - only these women had a but MORE to them than that).

It also gets in the way of the plot - I mean we have the already mentioned development of Psy society. But we also have ongoing, literally world ending chaos from the  Psy Net infection. Huge sections of the web may collapse. People are going into violent psychotic states and attacking their neighbours. This is world ending stuff and deeply traumatic as we see the casualties mounting. It also explores what Empaths can actually do, how many of them there are and so many other elements which are not given nearly the attention they deserve.Instead we spend waaaaay too much time on the romance developing down the same rut as the previous ones and it’s not only not as interesting, but it feels almost… unconscionably selfish. With what’s at stake even focusing on saving Vasic’s life feels like a little distraction, but the romance beyond that is almost cringe worthy. Especially since no-one seems to make any plan - they just kind of show up and hope the Empathy will kick in. Can we, by gods, please please please focus on the world changing plot that could quite literally cause the extinction of one third of sentient life in this world - MAKE IT A PRIORITY YE GODS!

On top of that I think that they’ve missed an opportunity to examine what psy relationships mean. Like one bizarre moment when Ivy decided to telepath naked images of herself to Vasic (super soon in the relationship which was… weird). I think this would be an excellent method of examining boundaries and personal relationship among the Psy: after all, how is this different from randomly flashing or exposing yourself to someone?

I’ve mentioned we have no LGBT people again. LGBT people don’t exist in this world despite the gajillion people.

Despite this series having an array of strong female characters, Ivy fell really flat for me. It as like, Vasic needed a love interest and Ivy was plopped into that mold. We did have appearances from Sahara and Sasha though

In terms of POC, again we had Sasha making some appearances alongside Lucas who is long established as mixed race east Asian and South Asian. We also have cameos from Devraj. When they gather several Empaths together, they come from Psy families around the world: Concetta from Paraguay, Chang from Kenya, Isiah from Niue and the most prominent of the other Empaths except for Ivy is Jaya from the Maldives.

We also have Zie Zen, a Chinese character that has been hinted at for a few books now as being some kind of master mind behind it all now peeking his head up and being more involved.

Ivy’s father is part Alegrian and Vasic’s grandfather is Chinese. One of the established elements of this series is that Psy tend to be mixed race with their constant genetic matches covering the globe. That has been something that we’ve seen a lot, but I do think there’s something of an issue with a fair few of these characters having POC ancestry but when they’re actually described they’re not immediately apparent as being other than White. Vasic is described as looking Slavic while Ivy has a golden skin (which is up there with “tanned” and “olive” as far as ambiguous description goes). That said, unlike many of those books that like “ambiguous mixed race” this series is very very very clear about their ancestry - there’s no attempt to make it a brief mention or passing reference. There’s no attempt to avoid or downplay their ethnicity.

As is so often the case with this series, I love the world, I love the growing metaplot, but this romance felt even more lackluster than the others with characters that were much more hollow than the more realised figures I’m used to from this series. It’s a shame that a series that is so incredibly creative manages to be so repetitive in its central storyline.