Behold, my review of the thirteenth full length novel in the Psy/Changeling series!
Same caveat as for the past several installments: if you are new to the series, don’t start here. Slave to Sensation is the first book, but you can read Visions of Heat, Caressed by Ice or Mine to Possess out of order without appreciable spoilers. After that, I strongly urge you to read the series in order.
Shield of Winter, by Nalini Singh
As far as I can see, this is the first post-Silence story,¹ dealing with the fallout of the events in Heart of Obsidian. Not only is the Psy Council truly dissolved, but a new ruling body has surged unelected–and uncontested–from the rubble.
This ruling coalition sees before it a Herculean task: to maintain calm among the Psy around the world, while dealing with the insidious and fast growing rot that is killing the Net, before the strain is too much.
Blurb from my hardcover copy:
Assassin. Soldier. Arrow. That is who Vasic is, who he will always be. His soul drenched in blood, his conscience heavy with the weight of all he’s done, he exists in the shadows, far from the hope his people can almost touch—if only they do not first drown in the murderous insanity of a lethal contagion. To stop the wave of death, Vasic must complete the simplest and most difficult mission of his life.
For if the Psy race is to survive, the empaths must wake…
Having rebuilt her life after medical “treatment” that violated her mind and sought to suffocate her abilities, Ivy should have run from the black-clad Arrow with eyes of winter frost. But Ivy Jane has never done what she should. Now, she’ll fight for her people, and for this Arrow who stands as her living shield, yet believes he is beyond redemption. But as the world turns to screaming crimson, even Ivy’s fierce will may not be enough to save Vasic from the cold darkness…
In Slave to Sensation, much is made of the fact that Sascha is a cardinal empath whose powers have been mercilessly stifled by Silence. In Visions of Heat, Faith–who can communicate with the NetMind, the roaming sentience that inhabits/is part of the PsyNet–tells Sascha that this entity protected her, that it loved her…and her kind. In Caressed by Ice we learn that Toby, another defector from the Net, also has some minor emphatic abilities.
Throughout the books, references to the empaths are made. At this point, we know that while they have been brutally conditioned in the century since Silence was first instituted, their existence is essential to the survival of the Psy. It makes sense that, now that it’s abundantly clear that Silence can–and will, if left unchecked–kill their race, the leaders of the Psy would look to them for help.
Kaleb Krycheck, still one of the scariest Psy around, is also intelligent enough to know that the empaths cannot simply fix the problem on his (or anyone else’s) say-so. They have to be nurtured back to psychic health, learn to first accept, and then use, their suppressed abilities–and then agree to work to heal the fractures in the collective psyche of the Psy.
And even then, the outcome is not guaranteed–for there were empaths before Silence, and still the Psy went psychotic and violent in a much higher percentage than humans and changelings.
Among the first group of empaths chosen to try to figure out a way to control, if not completely reverse, the corruption of the PsyNet, is Ivy Jane.
Ivy’s conditioning under Silence never quite took. Unlike Sascha, who was made aware very young of the terrible consequences of letting others see this truth (Slave to Sensation), and thus developed extraordinarily complex shields, Ivy simply tried, again and again, to force herself to be Silent.
Up to and including a final voluntary reconditioning at age sixteen that almost wiped her true personality out. Since then, she and her parents, along with a group of other Psy families and individuals, have hidden in plain sight; shielding each other from public scrutiny, their Silence is flawed, fractured, in different ways.
It only makes sense that, given the political and social unrest of this transition, any Psy who come out openly as empaths–who are by nature the opposite of Silent–will become targets of the polarized debate that grips the Psy. As the empaths are considered by many to be intrinsically vulnerable–causing pain to others rebounds on them–it makes sense to provide them with the most effective protection around.
Enter, the Arrow squad.
We met Vasic, senior Arrow, and the only known Traveler (a telekinetic for whom teleporting costs little to no psychic energy), in Hostage to Pleasure. Even then, his soul was exhausted. For long years, Vasic has worked to protect the Arrows from those–like Ming–who see them only as disposable weapons. His rebellion is quiet but determined.
In these reviews, I keep going on about Ms Singh’s skills at characterization. It’s amazing to me how she manages to make Silent, cold, unfeeling assassins sympathetic and human, without undermining who they have been from the moment they are introduced in the series. They change and grow, but they are remain who they are.
Vasic is no exception.
Vasic, like Judd so many years (books) earlier, carries with him the guilt of knowing he has killed innocents. That he has erased their existence. That he has, over and over, done evil. That he has done so, first in misguided belief in the Council and Ming’s leadership, and later to protect the Arrow squad, makes little impact on his sense of personal responsibility.
In Shield of Winter we learn about Vasic’s childhood, his ties with the true leader of the Arrows, Aden, and with Zie Zen, one of the eldest rebels in the Net.
He considers himself dangerous and expendable, and is ready and willing to cease to exist. He won’t commit suicide because he is loyal to Aden and the squad, and knows they still need him, but he won’t fight death on his own behalf. What he doesn’t see is that his Silence is as fractured as that of the empath he has agreed to protect at all costs. What is his weariness but guilt, and what is guilt but emotion?
Seeing him reconnect with his emotions, both the light–through Ivy’s gentle teasing–and the dark and intense, is absolutely wonderful. And heart wrenching. Fairly early in the novel, Vasic tells Ivy, “the day I feel, is the day I die.”
For her part, Ivy is the more outwardly resilient of the two. Not only did she survive and overcome a terrible attack on her psyche and physical brain disguised as reconditioning, regaining herself step by painful step. Now, she must come to terms with her true place in the gradient–not a middling telepath but a powerful empath–and learn to use her newly discovered abilities to help save the entire Psy population.
Pretty soon, Ivy has decided that she will have Vasic, one way or another. She will fight both the external threats to his life and his own despair, to drag him to a place where he can forgive himself and be happy.
This is neither an easy nor a linear process; just like with real people, Vasic suffers setbacks. It is not easy to break the conditioning and thinking patterns of decades. And both hopelessness and guilt are insidious emotions; Vasic struggles with a sense of worthlessness. How can an emotionless, Silent assassin, be good for Ivy, who is intrinsically warm, generous and just plain good?
The growth of their relationship is just lovely to see.
Then there are the secondary characters.
Some of them are well known to fans of the series–Hawke, Judd, Sascha, Lucas, Kaleb, to name a few. Some of them were quite unexpected, and getting to see them again was just lovely (for this reader at least). As is usually the case with Ms Singh’s work, all of these appearances, whether for a page or a full chapter, are not gratuitous. These characters have something important to contribute, either to this particular story, or to the overall arcing plot, or–most frequently–to both.
There are a number of seemingly throwaway scenes that subtly further the overarching plot, as well as little snippets that keep the reader abreast of what is happening in the wider world. Ivy’s and Vasic’s story is very much grounded on, and affected by, the present chaos that the fall of Silence, coupled with the accelerated rot of the PsyNet, has created.
A number of questions about the past–the implementation of Silence, the evolution of the rot that is killing off Psy by the thousands in violent, horrific outbursts–are answered here. At one point on my first–really quick–read of Shield of Winter, I thought there was a bit of Deux ex Machina near the end of the novel. On re-reads, both of this book and of the series, I realize that there are a number of clues dropped earlier that make what happens a natural, organic development.² Not only are the rules of the world always respected, but when viewed from the perspective of this world as a whole, there is a sense of evolution, of progression, that is perfectly logical.
The comparison (Vasic to Judd, Ivy to Brenna) is inevitable, but they are written clearly as individuals. There are both subtle and more open differences in their temperament and thought processes. Shield of Winter is definitely not a rehash of Caressed by Ice; these two stories show how a talented writer can take the same premise and write an entirely different story each time.
Shield of Winter gets an 8:50 out of 10
¹ I believe Ms Singh still considers both Shield of Winter and Shards of Hope part of the Silence arc; I am referring here to the fact that Silence has already fallen when the novel starts.
² You would think I would learn to slow the hell down on my first reads of these books–but seriously, who am I kidding? By the time of each release, I’m totally salivating and can’t wait to gulp down each word as fast as my eyes can process it.
Links to previous reviews in the series: