Wild Embrace, by Nalini Singh

5 Jul

Wild Embrace, by Nalini Singh

This is the second all Psy/Changeling anthology, and the first with all new stories. (I reviewed Wild Invitation, the first anthology, here.)

Wild Embrace was released last year, after Allegiance of Honor came out; despite my utter disenchantment with that novel, I had already decided I would read the anthology, so I did at some point later in the year. I wasn’t awed by it, but I remembered enjoying it well enough.

After reading Silver Silence, I decided to re-read and review it, to satisfy my ‘completist’ tendencies.

I probably shouldn’t have done it so soon after, though, because I was hyper aware of all the worst of Ms Singh’s writing tics; none of these stories have aged well for me.

Reader warning: This anthology is part of a long series, so the review by necessity spoils some of the stories that came before. As with the rest of the series, there’s some adult language and explicit sex. Finally, I rant–a hell of a lot–about one of the novellas in this book.

~ * ~

Echo of Silence
In a deep-sea station, Tazia Nerif has found her life’s work as an engineer, keeping things running down the barrier of silence between her and her telekinetic Psy station comander.

This story takes place fairly early in the chronology of the world, between Visions of Heat and Caressed by Ice. However, Stefan is not mentioned by the Arrows until much later in the series–not until Shield of Winter, if memory serves.

Tazia comes from some isolated tribe/culture somewhere in a desert area in North Africa or the Middle East. After her father encouraged her to become an engineer, he and the rest of the family cut ties with her when she decided to pursue a career instead of getting married, popping children, and staying put in her small village. Stefan is a powerful telekinetic who somehow managed to fail Arrow training while retaining a high status, and a measure of privilege, within Psy society.

There are hints early on that Stefan isn’t as Silent as all that, though these flow over Tazia’s head, because she’s selectively ignorant about the Psy. I assume that this ignorance is intended so things about the world can be explained to readers who are new to the series, but it strikes a weird note; what she knows and what she doesn’t just don’t make sense.

At any rate, most of the action doesn’t take place in Alaris, the underwater station, but (coincidence! not!) in the general region where Tazia originally comes from. Ms Singh goes to some pains to avoid locating the story anywhere recognizable. I don’t think this is necessarily significant to the story itself, but I found it frustrating; I don’t care for the vaguely, hand-waving, Middle Eastern feel to the location. It was somewhat reminiscent to the myriad mythical Middle Eastern kingdoms in category romance, and it furthers some negative stereotypes about culture and societal mores in just the same way.

On the plus side, it’s an interesting set up, within the world building of the series, to have the Psy be the one who shows interest first, and I would have enjoyed it more, despite the overwrought writing in the passages from Tazia’s point of view, but for something I found incredibly irksome: Tazia’s almost overriding need for her family’s approval.

For a good chunk of the story I hoped her character arc would be her accepting their choice to shun her, and getting on with her life. I mean, if our individual happiness is contingent to such degree on our parents approving of our life choices, at least half the world population is fucked to hell. Alas, instead, we are told that Tazia apologizing (for what, again?) is what is the right thing to do, because she’s ‘a beloved daughter.’ I don’t know if this makes sense for other readers; I find it enraging and misogynistic.

On the development of the romance between Tazia and Stefan, there are some good bits there, such as the fact that both of them are not only virgins, but haven’t even kissed anyone else. This could be wince inducing, and it’s sweet instead. I also liked that they finally talked about what is going to happen to the relationship once they return to Alaris, as Silence is still very much in place at this point in the chronology of the world.

“Echo of Silence” gets a 6.25 out of 10

~ * ~

A changeling who can never shift lives a life of quiet frustration–until he learns how to let his leopard come out and play.

This one is not even a story.

It’s less than thirty pages of a combination prequel/flashback, and a second epilogue to Hostage to Pleasure, Dorian’s and Ashaya’s book. Considering that Ms Singh has a fairly large collection of extras on her website that are quite similar to this, I don’t quite understand why this material was included here. Cynical me thinks, ‘filler for page count to justify the release of the anthology in trade paperback.’ But that’s just me, being a bitch.

“Dorian” consists of a handful of scenes, set at three different stages of Dorian’s life: as a very young child, unable to shift, or to understand why he can’t; a teenage boy, much more in control of the beast trapped inside him without hope of expressing itself; and an adult changeling whose mate has found a way to fix the genetic mutation that impeded the shift.

Others have discussed, much more eloquently than I can, everything that is wrong with having Dorian’s latency (his disability, if you will) fixed magically, just like so many fertility issues in romance novels disappear because twu lurve™ so I won’t go there again.

What I will say is that the writing a lot less overwrought than any of the other three stories–probably because it’s told entirely from a male point of view–but this is simply not a novella, and should not be marketed as one.

“Dorian” gets no grade.

~ * ~

Partners in Persuasion
Still raw from being burned by a dominant female, wolf changeling Felix will never again risk being a plaything. But for dominant leopard Dezi, he’s the most fascinating man she’s ever met. She just has to convince this gun-shy wolf that he can trust the dangerous cat who want to take a slow, sexy bite out of him.

This short story takes place immediately after the events in Tangle of Need, though it was written at least a couple of years later. The premise is, once again, very intriguing, considering the world building, and the placement within the chronology of the world: in Tangle of Need, Adria is recovering from her relationship with a less dominant male than herself, who resents her dominance, and ends up paired with Ríaz, who is more dominant than herself. In “Partners in Persuasion,” Felix hasn’t fully healed from giving his heart to a dominant female that only saw him as a temporary playmate a dozen years prior, and Desiree is quite dominant, high enough in the leopard hierarchy that she’ll likely become a sentinel for Dark River.

We finally see a dominant female court a male–and not only a less dominant male, but a submissive (alas, without the kinky undertones). It has been established before, most notably in “Declaration of Courtship,” that, when there’s a large dominance differential, the power to say yes or no always rests with the submissive; anything else would be tantamount to abuse.

I liked Felix in general, though I was a little irritated by his initial dog-in-the-manger reaction. Because of that failed relationship of his, he asks Dezi that they remain just friends. Then he sulks because she friend-zones him.

Dezi is in her mid-twenties, and while she hasn’t been in many relationships, she knows that her attraction to Felix is much stronger than it has any right to be; after all, she barely knows him. On the other hand, she’s determined not to push him. Once he gives her the green light, though, she tries her hand at romancing in a way that is awkwardly sweet.

My main quibble with the story is that Dezi, despite being a soldier and very dominant, is still written in a fairly overwrought manner. While nowhere near Tazia’s heart clenching and hand wringing, some of Dezi’s reactions strike me as out of character for a soldier.

For example, we are told that Dezi fought during the battle with Pure Psy (Kiss of Snow). Since Henry’s forces were killed all over the place, I feel safe assuming Dezi must have at the very least grievously wounded a few, more likely killed at least one. Yet she almost throws up when she thinks she ‘came on too strong’ to Felix, using her dominance on him. I can’t help comparing this with Cooper’s reaction when he feels he crossed a similar line: he doesn’t feel sick, he gets angry at himself.

This tracks with something that annoys me more the more I think about it: good women in the Psy/Changeling world just aren’t as strong was the men. This is enraging.

Despite my issues with the characterization, this is easily the best story of the four.

“Partners in Persuasion” gets a 7.00 out of 10

~ * ~

Flirtation of Fate
Seven years ago, Kenji broke Garnet’s heart. Now, the wolf packmates have to investigate the shocking murder of one of their own. And the more Kenji sees of the woman Garnet has become, the deeper he begins to fall once more. But even his primal instincts are no match for the dark secret he carries…

These two characters, and their I-hate-you-but-I-fancy-you-but-I-really-hate-you dynamic, have been mentioned as a side gag since at least Play of Passion, but this story doesn’t take place until after Heart of Obsidian. Like other long time readers of the series, I was glad to finally see their story play out.

Boy, was I let down.

For starters: for years, Garnet has been called Jem–because that’s the name she prefers. Which means I was baseline annoyed on her behalf from the moment I read the little blurb above, and was further annoyed that Kenji insists on calling her Garnet against her wishes. Which is why I call her Jem throughout this review.

Jem’s and Kenji’s backstory is that they grew up together in the same SnowDancer den, and when Jem was in her late teens, they were *thisclose* to start a serious relationship. Then, Kenji snubs her, in a manner that pretty much ensures she’ll hate him forever.

However, because they are both highly dominant and highly capable, they end up being lieutenants to Hawke, each in charge of adjacent territories. Ergo, they are forced to interact, at least superficially, on a fairly regular basis. Now, because reasons, Kenji has to spend some time in Jem’s den–which is uncomfortable, to say the least, but something that can be endured.

Then one of the wolves in the den is found murdered, and things get…complicated–both in the story and in this review.

First off, I liked the mystery angle quite a bit. It’s a closed door murder, literally: two people in a locked room, one of them dead of a knife wound to the heart, the other unconscious from a hit to the back of the head and no object close enough to explain the head injury. I liked the twists, and how every subsequent conversation with packmates, friends, former lovers, students, etc. revealed more about the two men in question. Always a plus, Ms Singh kept to the rules of her own world: changeling senses aren’t suddenly dismissed as investigative tools to serve plot, but are in fact used to good effect.

The rest, however? It’s a fucking mess.

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.

So, Kenji dumps Jem on the night of her twenty-first birthday because…he has just been told that he’s infertile.

Seriously. That’s his DARK SECRET™

In true category-romance-from-the-80s fashion, Kenji decides to save Jem from…making a decision about her own future.

Worse, over the next seven years, he finds ways to remain in her life, and poke at her, and keep making her aware of his existence like an annoying boil. He’s unilaterally denied them both the possibility of a relationship, but won’t let her go completely either.

Now, beyond the whole “changelings are good = changelings love children,” Kenji’s overreaction flies in the face of the original world building. In the earlier stories, we are told that changelings have a harder time conceiving than the other two races; that even for mated pairs, the conception rates are much lower than human and Psy. Never mind that fertility is always a lottery, never mind that these stories are set after 2070 (hello, medical advances!), never mind that adoption is always a fucking option.

Words cannot convey my rage over this setup–and the fact that Jem basically rages for five minutes and then lets go? ::rage scream::

How can you trust a man whose behaviour can be summed up as, “I’ll make decisions that affect your entire future, and I won’t even explain my reasoning to you”?

Eventually, it comes out that Kenji knows that Jem has always  wanted children–true of every changeling woman Ms Singh has ever written–but dear lord, that’s not the fucking point at all.

And still, of course, they are mates, and so forgiveness in about five minutes.

Mind you, the entire story is written to try and make us feel sorry for Kenji, because he also wanted kids and now he can’t have them, and because he felt forced to make this decision to protect Jem, and so on and so forth, but–if you can’t tell yet–I call bullshit.

How to grade this? The mystery, I would easily go a 7.00 out of 10 for it, but the relationship bullshit? That’s like a 2.00.

“Flirtation of Fate” gets a 4.00 out of 10.

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