Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Dogs and Cats Living Together! Mass Hysteria!"

Or, my review of Nalini Singh's Branded by Fire

This is one of my all-time favorite 1980s movie scenes:

The line that I've used to title this post is a bit I sometimes use to make a point when I feel like people have gone off the deep end into hyperbole or skies-are-falling worst case scenarios. Entertainingly enough, it's a propos on a couple of levels for Singh's latest installment in her Psy/Changeling series, Branded by Fire-- although I'm sure that if there were any real-life members of the SnowDancer pack of wolf changelings lurking about, I could expect some unpleasant retribution for referring to them as dogs. Heh.

The Romance
Though "mass hysteria" is a bit of an overstatement, the notion of leopards and wolves mating is in fact the source of much of the characters' internal conflict. Mercy and Riley both have to figure out how to fit this unexpected mate into their highly structured lives. The two of them are both highly--and equally-- ranked, extremely loyal and deeply attached to their respective packs. Riley at least, has always assumed that his mate would be a domestic female who'd fit into his pack. Mercy is not sure what kind of male-- if any-- she'd find for a mate, but rest assured that a wolf? wasn't in the plan.

Here's something that I wrote in one of my very first posts:

Some analyses of the appeal of fairy tales for children, especially the most gruesome, theorize that, by experiencing their own worst fears (lost in the woods, death of parents, etc) in a safe way-- ie, fictionally, through the characters' experience-- kids get a chance to process their fears on a subconscious level and be reassured that there is always Hope for a happily-ever-after.

I'm returning to that thought because I think Singh has taken a very common modern relationship affliction-- fear of commitment-- and built a fairy tale around it that lets us look at that fear and think about it on a level that's not quite as threatening as a straight contemp might be.

Does that make sense or am I veering too far into psychobabble? What I think is that Singh has given Mercy a different context for her fear of commitment: a hardwired, paranormal, "unreal" character trait of being a pack dominant. This is something that, within Singh's universe, Mercy can't help, can't change, and is in fact a big part of who she is and why she occupies the position she does. The difference between Mercy and a typical contemp romance heroine (or... reader?) is that she is never conflicted about this piece of herself. She never apologizes and never feels guilty that she is a dominant rather than a submissive or a maternal type. God, I love that!

She does worry about how to fit a mate into her life, both before and after she finds a specific one to worry about. While she cannot imagine a submissive male as attractive, she's equally unable to imagine herself submitting to someone more dominant. She worries about losing status in her pack, losing part of who she is. She's anguished at the notion of having to leave the pack -- or of asking Riley to leave his.

Maybe it's a bit of personal baggage, but I can relate to that. The way these characters resolve this conflict between their individuality and their couplehood is an exquisite treatise on compromise: on yielding without submitting; on examining and rethinking boundaries. A modern partnership of equals is hard, in the way that a win/win negotiation is harder than a win/lose. Love isn't always enough; it takes a willingness to examine what you think you know about yourself and what you are and are not willing to flex on; whether a yielding for the sake of the relationship is a fair trade or one you'll regret later. And whether your partner's willingness to yield is a measure of his love for you or something that diminishes who he is.

Mercy and Riley struggle with these things in a profound and real way. As characters in a romance must, they find their way through the labyrinth to their own Happily Ever After, and it's one that I enjoyed thoroughly as a reader. However, as someone for whom the term "alpha bitch" wouldn't necessarily be completely wrong, I'd also love to see this couple a few years down the road-- and see how the solutions have worked for them and what adjustments they've made.

The World
I have to admit, after the set up at the end of the last book, I rather expected a bigger bang to happen in this one. Instead, there are more teasers, another narrowly-averted disaster or two, and a looming sense of Something Really Big about to happen. Which is pretty much how the end of the last book felt, too, just with different players this time. If I had to find some fault with the book, I'd say that the series arc at the end felt a little rushed; a handful of loose ends hastily explained away a bit too easily, and not enough actually happening-- and it's becoming a pattern.

On the other hand, I'm verrrrrrrry intrigued by these falcon shifters. Adam sounds SRSLY yummy.

On the topic of the series' future, we also get several more layers on the Hawke-and-Sierra cake. Lots of readers are waiting breathlessly for this one, but I'll have to admit that this is the first book where it registered on me at all, probably because of Sierra's age. She's just turned 18, which is kind of the bare minimum for a contemp heroine to not completely squick me out. I really like how they are setting up Sierra's Psy powers to potentially take her in a radically different direction from previous characters in the series -- between this specific character setup and the rising ambition of the Human Alliance, Singh is layering all kinds of shades of gray into her world which is always more interesting than black-and-white, good-vs-evil. Although I will say that the tease we get about Sascha's research is one of the things that felt prematurely cut off at the end of the book-- I wanted more!

Hawke (does anyone else think it's weird to have a wolf named after a bird?) gets some good airtime here too. We get a little more insight into his character - I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that there are hints that he was mated at one time, but has somehow lost that bond. At least he didn't go off to die alone in a cave. (As far as we know, anyway.)

The Hott
Yeah. *fans self* Let's just say you should probably read this book in a well-ventilated area to prevent spontaneous combustion. I don't know about you, but that opening scene melted me into a little puddle. Hottest book yet, but classic Nalini -- if you haven't liked her previous Alphas, you'll probably really dislike these two... although if your objection in the past has been around a power mis-match, I think that's not a problem here-- the near-exact match of power and status is one of the most interesting features of this book.

Final Thought
Lastly, I'm going to leave you with this quote on the subject of individuality and partnership-- partly because I love the quote (my husband and I used part of it in our wedding) and partly because it amuses me no end to reference Bill Murray and Khalil Gibran in the same post:

Kahlil Gibran on Marriage
From Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

Then Almitra spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, Master?
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

Other Reviews Around the Web:
Heather's Books
Book Thingo
The Book Smugglers (Ana)
Dear Author (Janine)
Lurv A La Mode (Kmont)
Errant Dreams Reviews


Chris said...

You are about 100 time more eloquent than I about this book! But I will admit to getting the giggles when the Chrysler's song "Cats and Dogs" came on while I was reading it...

Mandi said...

I LOVE that Mercy doesn't apologize for being a dominant. It is rare to find a heroine that I admire as much as her.

Almost done this book...

KMont said...

This is a great review!

BUT...I cannot get over that awesome scene from Ghostbusters. Now I need to watch the whole thing! I busted a gut laughing in the office.

Erin said...

I LOVED Mercy and Riley. I loved them. When a heroine isn't busy apologizing for being strong, she can actually be a partner to her hero. I thought the scene where Riley shows up at her house after waking up with nightmares was beautiful in that regard.

Also, re: Hawke. I just finished a reread of Caressed by Ice last night. Hawke tells Brenna that the wolf he believed would grow to be his mate died when they were both kids. I think he said he was 10 and she was 5, but I could be making that up. I had completely forgotten until last night.

Kat said...

You know, this is the first time I've ever thought to question Hawke's name, but you're right!

Nicola O. said...

And this from a woman named Kat... heh.


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