The greatest strength of paranormal romance is the opportunity it provides for diversity in the genre. The boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-girl-back formula can be told with infinite variations when things such as five-hundred-year-life-spans are thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, paranormal has largely proved more homogeneous than hetero: he’s a vampire too noble to drink blood; she’s a good witch; he/she is a werewolf willing to chew off his/her own paw rather than bite a human. Limiting paranormal to a few constructs, a few worn out mythologies, constricts the subgenre to the strangling point and robs it of its most interesting aspect. One niche of paranormal romance that has yet to be winnowed down is science fiction. The opportunities for worlds with alternate histories, futures and presents that are populated with humans – or human like characters – are infinite and authors like Nalini Singh make a fantastic argument for more sci-fi romances.
Singh’s single title debut, Slave to Sensation brushes up to the science fiction subgenre cyberpunk. Set one hundred years into a dystopian future, Singh’s world is populated with humans – who seem to be the least important forms of higher intelligence – changelings, which are human/animal shape shifters and Psy, human-like beings with advanced mental capabilities who have squashed emotions from their lives. Whereas cyberpunk focuses on society as ruled by computers and vast networks of cyberspace, Singh tweaks this model for a mentally controlled society, where the Psy’s vast network, PsyNet, is completely telepathic, a cyberspace where minds connect without the need for technology.
The world Singh builds is complicated. At times it’s easier to go along with the plot than to stop and figure out exactly how the components of this world fit together. It’s furthermore difficult to ascertain where Singh’s futuristic California leaves off and her own lack of understanding of the state begins. San Francisco is described as a gem by the sea, when in fact it is rather famously a city by the bay. A hundred years in the future, has the city migrated those few miles to the coast? Or, is it simply an error in word choice? Likewise, Singh describes great forests that encroach toward the city and fill California’s great inland valley, but doesn’t mention a climate shift that would allow great forests grow in what is currently an arid climate. In the end, the world building doesn’t really matter as the shining star of this work is Singh’s ability to travel over familiar territory and make it her own.
Paranormal romances with shape-shifting or were-animal characters delve into the beast within the man metaphor without subtly or filter. There is literally a beast within the man. Singh handles this better than most by juxtaposing her changeling hero, Lucas Hunter – part man, part panther – with a Psy named Sascha Duncan. The Psy race is as cold and calculating as machines which makes this this juxtaposition interesting for the natural conflict it offers. He is animal, she is machine. It seems so natural and so easy a pitting of characters that it’s difficult to understand why this hasn’t been done to the point of cliché yet. Sascha and Lucas are caught in the centuries old strife of their natures and a very new and immediate threat: a Psy serial killer.
When several changeling women are tortured and killed, including one from the DarkRiver pack, Lucas, as alpha to that pack, decides to infiltrate the Psy. Lucas knows the Psy are mentally linked and though the races do not mix and each has limited information about the other, he feels certain information about the killer is bouncing around PsyNet. He simply needs someone to access the information so the killer can be caught and brought to justice. Lucas targets Sascha because she’s a cardinal, an extraordinary Psy with an unusual gift.
What Lucas doesn’t know is that Sascha isn’t like the other Psy. Her mental skills like telepathy and telekinesis are average at best. After a hundred years of a Psy program know as Silence – conditioning aimed at obliterating emotion and the animal instinct that leads to violent crime – Sascha shouldn’t feel anything. And yet, she does. Knowing she’s broken, she lives in fear that she’ll be found out and mentally reconditioned. Sascha is a fascinating heroine not simply due to the race of people she comes from or the world Singh builds for her, but because she is a heroine who is not the ultra-feminine antithesis of the ultra-alpha hero. Sasha doesn’t mother or nurture. She is uniquely her own character; a refreshing change of pace for a heroine and the best example of Singh taking familiar material and owning it.
Singh brings Sascha and Lucas together slowly and beautifully. Lucas is distrustful of Sascha, convinced she harbors a serial killer; and Sascha is distrustful of Lucas, convinced he will be able to see through her defenses and expose her as a the damaged and broken Psy she fears she is. And yet – it’s the and yet that’s the best part of romance – they are attracted to one another and feel compelled to be together. Eventually, Sascha and Lucas trust one another enough to team up and hunt for the serial killer. To do so, Sascha spends a considerable about of time on the PsyNet, which Singh describes as being similar to a network of stars against a black sky. It would seem Sascha’s time in the PsyNet would be plagued with a lack of action, as though the reader were staring into black, but Singh avoids this by keeping Sascha’s mental activities well painted. During the search Sascha comes to see her Psy world and the hierarchy within it as completely negative and the changeling world as completely positive. This is too easy a conclusion for the complexities Singh has built. While the story isn’t lesser for this, it does stand at odds with the rest of the work.
The search for the serial killer propels and sustains the story, even though the killer’s identity is easily guessed. The meat of the book, however, is the love story, an age old tale of opposites attracting and finding balance in those very differences. The result is captivating. Slave to Sensation straddles genres and succeeds because Singh takes seeming literary opposites, cyberpunk and romance, and blends the fields to makes something that is stronger for the pairing and uniquely her own own.
You can visit Nalini here and purchase this book here and here.