Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh. Berkeley. 2019.
Content Warnings for review: Discussion of ableism and internalized ableism. Discussion of trauma and torture.
Note: I do not recommend this book to disabled readers, and recommend particular caution to neurodivergent readers, especially readers with mental illness.
So, I finally read my first Psy-Changeling novel. I’ve read and enjoyed books by Nalini Singh before, but I hadn’t tried books in this series until now, and the books I enjoyed were primarily contemporary romance, which is generally more my thing. I like some science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romances, but I don’t read them as often or as voraciously, and there are some common tropes that often show up in them that make them very much not for me. Unfortunately, I’ve concluded that despite many aspects of the author’s writing that I enjoy, this series is not for me.
It’s a gripping novel, unputdownable, deeply engaging, very high stakes story, with compelling main characters who each have complex engaging individual character arcs. The romance arc is paced incredibly well, I was rooting for them as a couple, and enjoyed many of the emotional beats of their relationship development. I love it when heroes really adore heroines for being strong, tough, and ferocious, and this book does that kind of dynamic incredibly well. The sweetness at the core of both of these very tough MCs is lovely to see, and they have incredible emotional and sexual chemistry, and the slow burn of the romantic attraction unfolds beautifully. I love the courting with food moments so much!
I especially loved the moments of sweetness and connection that were platonic. Memory’s connection with the Arrow that she built over time. The friendship that she builds with Sascha. The relationship she is mourning with her pet Jitterbug. The relationship she builds with Ashaya, and especially the moment when Ashaya does Memory’s hair. The friendship Alexei has with Matthias, his relationship with his pack and with the cubs in particular. I loved how much the book valued platonic relationships, right alongside the romantic mating relationships, which really didn’t feel at all like a coercive fated mate situation. (I was very grateful for the consent aspects that were built into the worldbuilding around mating.)
I was not familiar with any of the prior books and was able to follow the story easily, even though this is not a subgenre I’ve read much of. (I’ve read some shifter romances and urban paranormals but my psy reading is basically just Anne McCaffrey and many many years ago.) I was especially impressed by that as this book is so far along in the series at this point, but this book truly can stand alone just fine.
The writing is right up my alley, with lovely amounts of sensory and emotional detail, impeccable pacing, characters that drew me in and made me care deeply about them. The secondary characters were drawn deeply, the slow burn was delicious. This is truly a writer who is very skilled–not a surprise–and can write the hell out of a romance–also not a surprise.
I have two core issues with this book that from what I can tell are issues that are deeply embedded in the worldbuilding of the series. The first is that we get this gigantic sprawling world with so many significant named characters across multiple in-world cultures, that is deeply ethnically diverse in a way that I really appreciated…and there are no queer or trans people anywhere, even in San Francisco, and nobody with physical disabilities. Not one, not even a minor character, not even an acknowledgement that queer folks might exist, that trans folks might exist, that physically disabled people might exist. In a first book in a series I might let that go, but this series has been going on for so many years, so so many years, and we literally have an imagined future universe set in the area where I live where queer people, trans people, and physically disabled people do not exist. This is an imagined future where people like me are eradicated, and I am tired of this kind of story. Really really tired.
Which brings me to the other core issue with the book, that feels more harmful than the erasure I named above: this series, and in particular this book, is built on a deeply ableist framework that intensely pathologizes mental illness, with MCs who are deeply self loathing around the idea that they are or might become mentally ill, and that sets up the idea of psychopathology & lack of empathy as automatically meaning that someone is a villain, toxic, abusive, a terrible person, unable to sustain relationship, is so intrinsically terrible that empaths who are around someone who has touched them will vomit and recoil just by smelling them on her.
This entire story and all of it’s conflicts and much of what drives the plot and motivations of the characters is rooted in this framework around mental illness and neurodivergence. (Spoilers: highlight to read.) We have a villain who is framed as a psychopath who does horrifying things and is a serial killer. A character who has no empathy and is highly intelligent and coded autistic who is framed as horrifying but not needing to die because she’s not inherently violent. A character who enacts violence while in a fugue state but can be cured so he won’t kill himself to save the world from his existence, he just needs to be constantly monitored. An MC who has a special talent for working with mentally ill people who calls them monsters and sees herself as a monster for much of the book until she learns she’s not actually mentally ill. An MC who is constantly afraid of becoming mentally ill and violent until they do tests on him and he learns he doesn’t have the traits that would cause that. The characters spend time marvelling how a character who was tortured for many years didn’t emerge from that “broken” but is still “whole” with a “healthy” personality, as if being impacted deeply by trauma is a character flaw and the only right way to be a trauma survivor is to not be impacted intensely and show tremendous strength. All of these characters are written based on the idea that mental illness and neurodivergence is awful, evil, frightening, out of control, the cause of violence, and driving the actions of abusive villains.
I found this incredibly painful to read as an autistic reader with mental illness. I encourage other readers to tread carefully, because the ableism in this book is really intense, and deeply embedded in how most of the core characters are framed, their motivations, the plot, the worldbuilding itself. Basically the entire book is about being afraid that really powerful people (both socially powerful and magically powerful) might be mentally ill, which would be the worst fate ever and the only way to solve it is for them to be cured, constantly monitored, or die.
- Black heroine with trauma
- White hero with trauma
- Desi woman author.
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Grief arc over companion animal death (of natural causes). References to and descriptions of torture, abuse, murder, physical violence, mind control, abduction. MCs in peril. Child abduction and child in peril. Threats to children and animal companions. Plot is premised on a deeply pathologized view of mental illness and coded autism that is used to frame almost all of the conflict in the story. Both MCs have intense self-loathing around internalized ableism, which are challenged in the text by reframing them as not mentally ill. The entire book is premised on the perception of certain kinds of mental illness as awful, evil, frightening, out of control, the cause of violence, and driving the actions of abusive villains. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
- I have had no contact with the author.
- All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.
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