Branded by Fire, by Nalini Singh
The sixth full length novel in Ms Singh’s successful Psy/Changeling series, Branded by Fire is the story of Mercy Smith and Riley Kincaid. For those among you who haven’t followed the series, Mercy is a high ranking sentinel with the Dark River leopard pack, while Riley is a lieutenant with the Snow Dancers wolf pack.
Generally speaking, newcomers to the series shouldn’t have many issues catching up, as there is just enough background given to explain the world and set up the story, without unduly slowing down the narrative for long time fans. However, I do recommend reading this series in order, not only because the world Ms Singh has created grows more complex with each release, but also because these two characters have brief appearances in several of the earlier books, which enriches the experience of—finally!—reading their story. Furthermore, there is an overarching story arc throughout the series, with little snippets in every book contributing to its development, which on its own would make it worth reading the books in the order of release.
Reading order and links to my reviews:
Here is the back cover blurb from the author’s website:
Though DarkRiver sentinel Mercy is feeling the pressure to mate, she savagely resists when Riley Kincaid, a lieutenant from the SnowDancer pack, tries to possess her. The problem is not simply that he pushes her buttons; the problem is that he’s a wolf, she’s a cat, and they’re both used to being on top.
But when a brilliant changeling researcher is kidnapped from DarkRiver territory, Mercy and Riley must work together to track the young man—before his shadowy captors decide he’s no longer useful. Along the way, the two dominants may find that submitting to one another uncovers not just a deadly conspiracy, but a passion so raw that it’ll leave them both branded by fire…
For once, this blurb makes me happy. Yes, you read that right: the blurb makes me happy. The prologue of the novel sets up the attraction between Mercy and Riley, and the external conflict between the different human groups forces them to spend time together, on equal terms—both as high ranking members of their packs and as individual changelings pulled toward each other by the instinct to mate.
In this installment of the series, Ms Singh tackles the question of inter-changeling mating, as well as hinting at further blurring of the lines between the three human groups. Other forms of inter-mating—psy with changeling, changeling with human—have been present in the stories pretty much from the beginning, but this particular combination presents more obstacles than most, if not all, of the others. Not only are both Mercy’s and Riley’s animal forms predators; individually they are both dominant, high in the hierarchy of their respective packs.
The question of dominance is central to any potential relationship between them, as is the fact that their protective instincts are developed to a higher-than-normal degree in both of them. This makes them uniquely suited for the position they each hold but, simultaneously, it makes it particularly difficult for them to stand back when the other faces any danger—real or perceived. Personally, I loved seeing this conflict play out between them.
I found that the struggle between their pack position and responsibilities, and their mating instincts were portrayed very realistically—for an utterly unrealistic scenario, obviously, and isn’t that precisely what we look for in a fantasy? For the author to make it tangible for the reader? In this, Ms Singh succeeded for me, completely. As a plus, she manages to fit the resolution of Mercy’s and Riley’s internal conflict within the rules of the world as presented in the previous novels.
A major theme of each book, and the series as a whole, is the dichotomy of human nature. There is a tenuous balance between good and evil, and the best of motivations may spawn negative (and wholly unforeseeable) consequences. This is explored further in Branded by Fire as each of the groups internal dynamics come to light for the reader.
For example, in the previous novel, Hostage to Pleasure, the Human Alliance, a heretofore small player in the world’s power structure, started to up the ante. Of the three human groups, plain humans have historically occupied the bottom rung—unable to channel psychic gifts or animal strengths, humans are widely viewed as inferior, not only by the other groups but occasionally by themselves. Originally, the Human Alliance sought to even out the playing field, but… well, we all know that often the best of intentions pave the way to Hell.
The inter-pack politics are expanded upon through this novel, as is the complexity and changing nature of the relationships between the three human races—changelings, psy and humans. More animal forms are introduced—notably the falcons, though bears and lynx are again mentioned.
Of particular interest to me is that there are still unanswered questions regarding the different factions. Ms Singh has built up the intrigue with each successive installment through the structure of the novels. The narrative intersperses short passages pertaining to the overall picture, all related to the external conflict that Mercy and Riley’s packs face, with longer passages dealing with their internal conflicts—their struggles with themselves and with each other.
These clues—short scenes involving the Ghost, Amara, Nikita Duncan, Kaleb, etc.—move the overarching plot forward without overshadowing the plot of this novel. However, since these snippets do not contribute to the development of Mercy and Riley’s relationship, some readers may consider this material extraneous and/or confusing. For fans of the series as a whole, each of these snapshots are great fodder for speculation—from the identity of the Ghost onward.
Branded by Fire is another great novel by Ms Singh. 8.50 out of 10.