Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hostage to Pleasureby Nalini Singh - Review

First, before you read this, if you haven’t read the first four books, go get your wallet, head to the nearest bookstore, buy them, and read them. This review will still be here when you get back and have them finished.

This review contains a plot spoiler for the first book.

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Ready now? OK. So I’m assuming here that if you are continuing to read, there’s about a 99% probability that you’re already a Nalini Singh fan and are dying to know more about Dorian’s story. And well you should, because it’s the best one yet.

If you plug in “two kinds of people” to Google, you get 1,330,000 hits (today, anyway). There are two kinds of people: those who like to divide people into categories, and those who don’t.

Or, something like that. I know some people who are devoted followers of the Myer-Brigg personality inventory thingy, and can frame any interpersonal differences in MB terms. Then there’s the right-brain/left-brain theory; introvert/extrovert; hi-tech/hi-touch… it’s a very popular thing to define a dichotomous spectrum and attempt to solve all the world’s problems by understanding where you fit on the scale relative to everyone else. (Unless you’re like me and end up in the very middle of the scale on every quiz you take, but that’s a whole ‘nother post, if not a different blog…)

The reason I bring this up is because Singh’s universe, to me, seems predicated on extremes – the Psy are cerebral to the extreme, classifying emotional and bodily functions (ie, eating, sex, etc) as more primitive and therefore undesireable. The changelings represent the other extreme, relying on their inner animal for all their species’ advantages. It’s a little unbalanced though, because the changelings don’t sacrifice their intellect in the process. Which of course is why we readers are all swoony for the cats & wolves. Dorian and Ashaya are even further out on these extremes than their predecessors.

The first books were a case of opposites attracting – of the changelings helping the emotionally frozen Psy main characters, and the pack benefiting from the Psy talents. ** SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN’T READ ANY OF THE BOOKS:** Most of the Psy mistakenly believe that they cannot survive outside the main Psy network, the Net, but as it turns out, the changelings have a sort of pack-oriented net too that can support the Psy members’ needs.

What’s different and interesting about HtP is that Dorian and Ashaya are more alike than different. They both know what they are supposed to be but have been alienated from that self, for different reasons. Dorian’s leopard is latent – he cannot change physical form. Singh’s imagination in sharing with the reader what kind of pain this causes her character awes me; I mean, making us imagine the joy and freedom that a changeling feels in his alternate form is one thing, but making us feel the agony of the lack of a fictional trait? I think that’s pretty amazing. Dorian controls and hides this pain with a will of iron. His sniper abilities are a direct compensation for not having the strength and speed of his cat at his disposal. His pain over his sister's death puts him in an emotional turmoil at the far range of the rest of the pack.

Meanwhile, Ashaya is very different from the Psy we know. Unlike Sascha and Faith, whose journeys were about overcoming their conditioning to live within the Silence of the PsyNet, Ashaya already knows that the Net is flawed, and that she doesn’t belong there. Ironically, in order to live within its strictures, she becomes, on the surface, everything that she knows she really isn’t. (Hope that makes sense— if not, it will when you read the book-- Ms. Singh does it way better than I do, trust me!). Ashaya outwardly becomes the Psy ideal, using her formidable intellect to live a dual life. Also different from Sascha, Faith, and Judd, she has compelling reasons to remain in the Net even when she knows – and longs for—the alternative.

My point is that Ashaya and Dorian both have inner selves that they are aware of but cannot access. Blocking that self off causes each of them incredible pain, and molds their characters into another kind of extreme. As in all romance, the story of how they overcome those obstacles, both internal and external, drives the plot. When it’s badly done, the character bumps into a door, drops through a time gate, or gets slapped by a secondary character and they snap out of it.

But when it’s done right—as in this case—the external problems are solved by believable action scenes and plotting, and the internal problems are unfolded inch by painful inch. When Dorian and Ashaya finally take that last step, make that last connection, you know they’ve earned it and fought for it and I promise, it will make you sigh happily.

A lot of series start getting a little stale after three or four books. The world-building gets outlandish or starts building up to an Ultimate Final Confrontation that no author could possibly deliver on. Singh however, brings it in #5 with no letup in sight. Her characters get better and better, and the world is evolving in layers that feel realistic, if ominous (all too familiar, in fact, although that too is a post for a different blog). While we sense that there an eminent shift in global power, one that will have repercussions for all of the societies, it isn’t some looming monolithic Evil that Must Be Stopped.

One last point – I love the way this book is an inter-racial romance without being an Inter-Racial Romance, if you know what I mean. By polarizing three different societies in her universe, Singh can treat traditional racial lines in a lot of different ways. The only real hints as to Ashaya’s ethnicity are her name, the description of her hair texture and her skin color. Given that her eye color is blue, and her son is half Chinese, we are given the sense that race as we understand it is irrelevant in this universe. But the stories are fundamentally about overcoming assumptions about the Other, and finding commonality.

And if that isn't the perfect theme for a romance, I don't know what is.

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3 comments:

Angela said...

What a wonderful review Nicola! What you and a select few other people do with reviews (keeping them spoiler free) just goes to show that it can be done, and done well.

Thank you!

Nicola O. said...

Thank you for the compliment!

Danielle said...

Fantastic review. This is still my favorite book, for many of the reasons you so eloquently elucidated in this review.

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