by Nalini Singh, fantasy (2006)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-21286-6
Slave To Sensation, the first book of Nalini Singh's Psy-Changelings series, simultaneously entertains and perplexes me, if truth be told. This is a very entertaining story but at the same time, the author has more complexity introduced in the actual details of her setting than in the overall concept of her series. For all the richness in the details of how things work in this story, the author at the same time introduces an overly simplistic concept of the Psys being all-around bad and evil while the shapeshifters are, of course, good and perfect and any flaws they have can be justified because they are the good guys. This book is both complex and dumbed-down at the same time.
Let's go into the 101 of the setting first, shall we? This story is set in an alternate present-day earth where three humanoid species co-exist. The humans are too boring to be of interest - or not hirsute enough, perhaps - so they don't figure in this story. The changelings are the shape-shifters, all that is holy and good about this world because they live in packs and they produce alpha males by the truckloads and we all know Alpha Hairy Shape-shifting Heroes are Good People. The Psys are the telepaths who decide that emotions are signs of weakness and therefore commit themselves to a pogrom called Silence where kids are "trained" to be emotionless and those considered defective are sent to rehabilitation centers where they receive anything but actual rehabilitation. The Psys are everything that is evil and nasty in this world and nothing they do is ever right.
You got that? Humans, whatever. Psys, the root of all evil and they don't even do that alpha male thing, so they are really, really evil. The changelings are of course perfect and they do everything and anything for the sake of the children, the environment, the people, the sun, the moon, the apples, the ocean, the ice caps, the ozone layer, and more. All the changelings want is to run free and make the world a beautiful place - barring the occasional pack genocide - but those evil Psys want everyone to live in narrow apartments and play by their rules.
Our heroine Sascha Duncan is a cardinal Psy - a cardinal is your average high-scorer in exams and what-not - whose mother is a powerful member of the ruling council called the Psy Council. I'd imagine a species so into the powers of the mind will be a little more creative than that, but hey, then again, the Psys are evil to the core, et cetera, so there is that. Sascha agrees to supervise a housing project that is a joint venture between her mother and the changeling Lucas Hunter. She has enough problems trying to hide her own "defect" from her own people. Sascha, you see, feels emotions and is clearly not like the other heartless Psys. Don't ask me if her father is a Carebear though.
Unfortunately, she has no idea that Lucas has his own reason to work with a Psy. You see, someone has been killing off changeling women. Of course the bad guy is a Psy. The changelings can "smell" the killer - all Psys, you see, exudate a "metallic stink that repels". Because the changelings are perfect, naturally they are not wrong in this instance. The changelings believe that the Psy Council are covering up the crimes and even protecting the killer, so a war is about to brew. Because these changelings are Good People, however, and Lucas' pack the DarkRiver are the best of the Good People, Lucas wants to try to learn what he knows from Sascha so that the Psys will not destroy their kiddies and what-not. I really don't get what Lucas intends to do, to be honest. He doesn't want to seduce Sascha because she's a Psy and she also has BO, the poor gal, but at the same time he hopes to be privy to information that only a cardinal Psy has access to. How does he expect to do this? Does Lucas expect the Psys to be so stupid?
As you can probably tell by now, the whole dumbed-down premise of the Psys being singularly nasty while the changelings are all that is good really doesn't sit well with me. I feel the same way when I am reading propaganda material by PETA and other folks who espouse a ridiculously simplistic "us versus them, with us the good guys" viewpoint. Here, the changelings, led by Lucas, have a field day judging, mocking, and insulting the Psys and it is only late in the story that someone dares to call out the changelings on branding all Psys with broad brushstrokes. But by then, the author has done everything to make sure that I get the message that the Psys are utterly bad. They even have bad BO, after all. Lucas' acceptance of Sascha goes in tandem with her complete rejection of who she is, which doesn't sit well with me because I can't be sure that he won't wake up one day in a foul mood and hold the fact that she is a Psy against her.
Now, I understand that you get mad when someone is killing your people, but at the same time, these changelings don't seem to know what tolerance is. With or without the killing, they are as hypocritical as what they accuse the Psys to be, frankly. Of course, Ms Singh has Sascha telling me that as violent and brutal as the changelings can be, it's still good because they are "honest" about being who they are, unlike the Psys who pretend to be nice when they aren't. I don't know, really. My issue is not with how these characters think, however, my problem is with the author using such ridiculously simple overgeneralizations in her story that results in the hypocritical double-standards that are in play in the story, where nothing the Psys can do is right while even the most unpleasant aspect of the changeling society is excused by the immature justification that the Psys are still so mean so yes, the changelings are still the good guys.
Likewise, I am not pleased with how ridiculous Ms Nalini can get when it comes to the plot development. Lucas is shocked when Sascha starts asking reasonable questions about the changelings because apparently all Psys are so wrapped up in themselves that they are supposed to view the changelings as morons. The irony in this very situation seems to be lost on the author. A Psy asking whether leopards who like to climb tress will want a second floor in the house for their antics? How shocking! A Psy asking whether the wolves and panthers who are enemies will want to stay in the same housing estate? How shocking! Psys are not supposed to wonder about this kind of thing!
I don't know. Either Lucas is really more naive than he believes himself to be, or Ms Nalini has confused "emotionless" with "mentally impaired" because what Sascha is asking isn't rocket science. Are the Psys supposed to be really that stupid? On one hand Ms Nalini wants me to imagine that the Psys are a bunch of emotionless cold-hearted reptiles capable of all kinds of inhuman acts but at the same time I am supposed to accept that the Psys are complete idiots? I can't buy that, sorry.
This obvious dumbing-down of the story is frustrating because Ms Nalini is clearly better than this when it comes to other aspects of her story. You may be wondering why a Psy will kill if he or she is supposed to be incapable of emotions. After all, if you can't feel, you won't feel the thrill of killing people, no? However, Ms Nalini has a perfectly reasonable explanation for this conundrum. Likewise, her concept of the PsyNet is interesting and surprisingly well-rendered to the point that one can imagine what the author is describing without having to think too conceptually. The pack politics are nothing really new here, but the Psy society is very fascinating and superbly rendered, which frustrates me because Ms Nalini's most fascinating aspect of her story is at the same time being depicted as one-dimensionally negative.
You may be wondering by now what I am giving this book a keeper grade when clearly I feel that we need some kind of intervention to get rid of the Carebear-like depictions of good and evil in this story. Here's the thing: Ms Nalini is very good at telling her story here. This is one book that is hard to put down, especially due to the very powerfully depicted, poignant, and melodramatic last few chapters of the story as well as the sizzling first half or so of this book.
The story falters towards the middle when the author starts utilizing some predictable and tedious "dream sex" thing that does nothing in my opinion to move the story along, but the first few moments when Lucas and Sascha are circling each other are very superbly done. The author manages to evoke the thrill of the hunt, the intriguing development of reluctant sexual attraction, and other minutiae of the interactions very vividly. The sexual attraction is so thick that it is as if I can cut it with a knife. And late in the story, even as I'm not fond of martyrs and Sascha is really angling for a trophy in that regard, Sascha is willing to sacrifice herself for a worthy cause so my heart is with her even as it breaks along with Lucas'. I may not be too fond of some really blatant placement of sequel baits in this story but the pack politics intrigue me and I find myself thinking that Lucas, for all his stereotypical alpha male pretensions, can become a really poignant hero when he starts going all melodramatic over the very real possibility of losing Sascha. I'm not too convinced of his grand love for her, mind you, because I don't really buy any romance that requires the heroine to reject who she is to embrace the identity that the hero wants her to have, but he sure brings on the heartbreak and the angst so prettily.
Ultimately, it is the fact that Ms Nalini tells me such an entertaining story so well that seals the deal where I am concerned. Oh, I have reservations. The really sentimental last chapter and the epilogue embody the whole cheese that is the author's too-simplistic and mawkish treatment on the whole "emotions are good, baby, because when we emote, we are good people so bring on the rainbow magic" concept in the story. There really is rainbow-colored psychic woo-woo in this story, by the way. You think I am making it up? But despite my so many reservations, I can't deny that, viscerally, I can't really fault this story for showing me one fine blast of a time. My brain tells me that this book is too sappy and the fundamental concepts in the story are too simplistic despite some paradoxically complex thoughts having gone into the world-building, but my heart tells my brain to shut up and write a fan mail to Ms Nalini.
Slave To Sensation is therefore a subversively enjoyable book where I am concerned. I can only imagine what will happen if Ms Nalini decides to introduce some complexity in her characters and setting instead of the current dumbed-down black-or-white situation between the Psys and Changelings. I hope the next book will be different because I don't think I want to read a series of stories about ignorant Psy female martyrs apologizing to patronizing horny alpha changeling males for being who they are. So, for now, I am tentatively on board with this author. I am giving Slave To Sensation a 90, but to be honest, a part of me still feels that it doesn't deserve this high a score.
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