Friday, March 06, 2009

"Slave to Sensation," by Nalini Singh

Alternate Title: Sex Panther

The Chick: Sascha Duncan. Born a Psy, a race of psychics who forcibly eliminated all unnecessary sentiment from their ranks, she must constantly surround herself with mental shields and firewalls to prevent others from discovering her genetic flaw: an ability to feel emotion.
The Rub: Her real estate project puts her in direct contact with changeling Lucas - a werepanther whose very touch sends her into sensory overload.
Dream Casting: Jessica Alba.

The Dude: Lucas Hunter. The Alpha of the DarkRiver clan of Changelings (in this case, wereleopards), he's on the hunt for a serial killer who's targeting Changeling women.
The Rub: Every trace of evidence points to a Psy killer, and Lucas is determined to do whatever it takes to prove the Psy Council is harboring a murderer - even if he has to do it through Sascha, whose mother is one of the Council's most influential members.
Dream Casting: Zachary Quinto.

The Plot:
Sascha: Life is hard - I feel emotion but must hide it or I'll be brainwiped!

Lucas: Life is hard - someone's killing changeling women and I have to seduce a hot woman to discover the truth!

Sascha: I cannot be seduced.

Lucas: Really? *pokes*

Sascha: *full-body orgasm*

Lucas: Heh, thought so.

Sascha: I ... meant to do that.

Lucas: Sure you did. Let's find the killer, shall we?

Psy Serial Killer: Nyahahaha! Evilness! *brutally killed*

Sascha and Lucas: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Alpha Alpha

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Serial Killer Whose Secret Serial Killerness is Loudly Telegraphed From the Start

Several Counts of Friendly PDA

2 Shared Erotic Dreams

1 Secret Power

1 Near-Instance of Death By Chocolate

The Word: If you're not already aware by now, I was asked to do a Guest Dare by The Book Smugglers, where I read a book they suggested and wrote a review of it. I did - and the review will be appearing on their site this month. They're a wonderful review site and it wouldn't be the first time I took their suggestions, but after reading Slave to Sensation, I might be a little warier about it. Ana is a huge Nalini Singh fan, so I decided to pick up the first book in her Psy/Changling series and see how it turned out.

In an alternate America, there are three races - the humans, the Changelings, and the Psy. The Changelings are basically werepeople, with wolves, leopards, and even swans (!), who live in autonomous pack societies. The Psy, on the other hand, are cerebral psychics who, for a hundred years, have instituted the Silence - a protocol that demands all emotion be trained out of their members, following the theory that without rage and hatred and depression, there will be no violence.

Sascha Duncan, a Psy, is hiding a secret - despite a century of genetic programming, she can still feel emotions, a trait that, if discovered, would immediately sentence her to "rehabilitation" - essentially a forced lobotomy. Ever since she was a child, she's kept herself contained behind hordes of mental shields and firewalls to prevent other Psys, and the PsyNet (a kind of linked psychic network/mental life support system) from discovering her flaw. On top of being "broken," she's also crippled - while her unique eyes (all black with white stars) mark her as an advanced, or cardinal Psy, she's never exhibited any amazing talents, so even with her secret hidden she's a bit of a joke in the Psy community.

When her mother assigns her to help broker a real-estate deal with a changeling-run construction company (and also to gain more information on changeling life), Sascha at first sees it as an opportunity to finally be of some use to the Psy community and keep her superiors off her back. However, when she meets the developer, Lucas Hunter, a leopard changeling, all her senses go haywire and she must fight extra hard to keep her emotions and overloaded senses under wraps.

Lucas, however, has plans of his own. Someone's been torturing and killing changeling women, and it smells like a Psy - and the bizarre refusal of human authorities to investigate the murders stinks of psychic influence to keep the killer from being outed. The info-sharing nature of the PsyNet prompts Lucas to believe that the Psy Council knows who the killer is, and is protecting him to maintain the lie that the Silence Protocol eliminates all violence from the Psy population. Since Sascha's mother Nikita is on the Psy Council, he thinks if he gets under her skin, he might be able to infiltrate or at least learn more about the PsyNet and find the killer's identity. That is, if Sascha herself doesn't know who the killer is - after all, with her own mother on the Council, what doesn't she know?

I wanted so much to like this book. Not only because of the Book Smugglers - other reviews all over the net do happy dances for Nalini Singh. I'm a fantasy reader as well as a romance reader and so far I haven't met many fantasy-romances that have thrilled me. But, well, I didn't like Slave to Sensation. I tried - I really did, but by novel's end all I wanted to do was put the book down and read about petticoats and barouches and snuffboxes again.

To me, three of the most important elements of a romance novel are a) the hero and heroine, b) the general plot (if it isn't specifically based on how the hero and heroine get together) and c) the language. Sadly, this novel disappointed me on all three levels.

First, let's start with the characters. Sascha Duncan has had a rough life, to be sure - since childhood she's been forced to keep her true personality hidden to protect herself from rehabilitation. Her constant repression results in physical as well as mental symptoms - hand spasms, occasional seizures, and a belief that she's slowly going insane. I get all that. What I didn't enjoy was that because of that, she spends ninety percent of the novel as the guest of honour at her own fully-decorated, Wolfgang-Puck-catered pity party. I found it hard to relate to her as an independent, motivated character when she got down on her knees every other page and looked at me with her sad-kicked-puppy eyes begging me to feel bad for her. She spends so much time being terrified and depressed and (once she lets her shields down) uncontrollably horny that I couldn't figure out her actual personality beyond the crazily exaggerated emotions she endures.

Because of that, I never really bought the romance. Lucas' entire attraction to Sascha seems to stem from White Knight syndrome - he's overprotective and domineering to begin with, so coming up against a girl who'd like nothing more than to curl into a fetal ball and sob is Alpha Male catnip. I never felt his character developed from his relationship with Sascha - he stayed more or less the same. He was always the one giving comfort and protection and safety - and Sascha soaked it all up like a sponge, giving little back except the requisite sexual pleasure.

The characters might not have been so obviously cardboard if there had been an interesting plot to distract me, but the novel lacks a true mystery element as the Psy killer does everything short of walking into his first scene with SERIAL KILLER tattooed on his forehead.

Lastly, I found the language purple and overwrought. I understand how, in Sascha's case, her unease and unfamiliarity with emotions renders her extremely sensitive to sensory experience. Everything from simple handshakes to chocolate chip cookies sends her completely over the edge, so a lot of the description around her character was exaggerated - everything was a huge burning wave of magnificence that threatened the sparkly, fragile eggshell of her deteriorating sanity type of deal.

But everything in the book was described this way, not only from her point of view. I felt everything in the book was described as an extreme, and it got tiresome quickly. I always believe the best writers use elaborate language sparingly in order to create a dynamic and a sense of true importance in the scenes where such wordplay is used. To quote Chuck's Ellie Bartowski: "If everything is awesome, than nothing is awesome and awesome is just mediocre." I felt the same way here: everything can't be the most important heart-stoppingly beautiful/horrifying/sensual thing that's ever happened in the history of EVAR. This becomes particularly apparent during the sex scenes - which, to me, seemed both unnecessarily long and unnecessarily graphic. They went on forever with very little significant plot development, and I could skip them without missing a great deal.

Nalini Singh does contribute some interesting worldbuilding - I enjoyed learning about what America would be like if wildlife-loving Changelings were a significant and influential section of society, and pack politics kept me reading. However, this novel was a romantic mystery - and neither the romance (too one-sided) nor the mystery (too obvious) held much water for me.


  1. Anonymous4:43 AM

    Hey AnimeJune.

    I actually agree with you about Slave to Sensation. To me, it is the weakest book of the series. I know loads of reviewers rave about it but I wasn't crazy about it. In fact , I gave it a 6 when I reviewed it.

    The writing was not all that and the characters did not do much for me. The worldbuilding was intriguing and this is what made me pick up book 2, Visions of Heat. Which I thought was superior but still not amazing.

    Caressed by Ice to me, was the turning point of the series - the book that made me an undying fan of Nalini's (I gave it a perfect 10) - her writing by then becomes so good, as do her characters and the worldbuilding is just phenomenal.

    But at the end of the day, that is just my opinion of course. : D

  2. Anonymous4:54 AM

    Oh one thing that doesn't change throughout the books though: her sex scenes are always long and very graphic. Even though I don't read romance for the sex and I have been known to skip sex scenes here and there, Nalini's just happen to work for me. It is one of those things. We click, I guess.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Ana --> Ah! I looked for your review but I couldn't find it - I only found Visions of Heat and onwards. Thanks for this.

    I agree completely with the repetition - maybe that was one of the reasons I disliked Sascha is she just couldn't say "I'm broken and my life sucks" once and keep it like that - she goes on and on until it was pounded into my brain.

    I think I was also a little biased against her because I kept comparing her to Kel-Paten from "Games of Command," a man in a very similar situation: having emotions he can't feel, always connected with a shady authority through his computer, etc.

    I'm still intrigued about the rest of the series, though - I looked up the rest on her site and I'm interested by how nearly every one has a Psy/Changeling pair up. Like Mrs Giggles, I was a bit turned off by how the Psy were portrayed as all that was evil and the Changlings as all that was good (like how even when they were incredibly violent and merciless it was "honest violence" and not, I dunno, sneaky violence like the Psy?), but the fact that her other books have Psy/Changling pairups might mean differently.

    As for the sex scenes - I rarely mark books down for sex scenes (unless their frequency and length takes time away from the story, a la Lisa Kleypas) because I know it's a matter of taste. Some sex scenes get me (Sophia Nash and Mary Balogh's do), while other turn me right off. I'm often in the "I don't even need a sex scene" category, too.

    Just in this case, I kept wondering that if chocolate could drive Sascha crazy, how could an orgasm not make her head explode? *lol*