Friday, May 8, 2015

THOUGHTS on Nalini Singh's "Hostage to Pleasure"

Nalini Singh's "Psy-Changeling" series is very popular among readers of UF (Urban Fantasy) and PNR (Paranormal Romance). Although I like the series a lot, and still follow it, my favourites in the series are the earlier ones. In particular, my favourite is book 5, "Hostage to Pleasure." Now, the title of this book, IMO, is extremely embarrassing to admit to - it sounds like an 80s bodice ripper. I really wish it had a different title - I at least have a Gollancz copy with a guy's face on it, which is less embarrassing than the Berkley cover. But despite the torrid-sounding title, HtP passes all three of my selected tests for feminism with flying colours.


The "Psy-Changeling" series is set in an alternate universe, where three species of humans share the earth: normal humans, Changelings, and Psy. Normal humans are humans as we are. Changelings are humans that have animal forms, and the Psy are humans with (X-men-like) mental powers such as telepathy, telekinesis, foresight, etc, who are all linked into this mental network known as the Psy-Net. Over a hundred years ago, the Psy population was suffering from outbreaks of terrible violence from a rash of mental/emotional instability combined with their dangerous mental powers. In order to save themselves, Silence was implemented. Silence was a program to train Psy to feel no emotions; the idea is that without rage and anger, the outbreaks of violence would stop. Because their procedures failed at just targeting rage and anger, however, the Psy determined that the erasure of all emotions, including love, was worth stopping the outbreaks of violence. Fast-forward to 100 years, the time at which HtP takes place, and the Psy have apparently succeeded in conditioning away their emotions. Silence is strictly held in place by the governing body of the Psy (the Psy Council), who ensure that the Psy remain Silent by any means, while still maintaining the public face of being violence-free. In the earlier books of the Psy-Changeling series, we were shown that the perfect implementation of Silence isn't exactly as the Psy Council portrays it. There are rebels within Psy-Net who want to overthrow the council, and the heroines from book 1 and 2 are Psy who have escaped from the Psy-Net, and ended up being protected by Dark River, a pack of Changeling leopards.

As a note, there will unavoidably be spoilers for HtP in the sections that follow, and they will be unmarked because reference to these plot points form the basic content of this post.


One of the reasons why I love HtP, despite its title, is the fact that HtP's heroine, Ashaya Aleine, passes the Sexy Lamp Test with flying colours.

If you can replace your main female character with a sexy lamp, and the story/plotline still basically works, then the story fails the "Sexy Lamp" test. 

My Interpretation of Ashaya Aleine
Ashaya was actually introduced in the previous book in the series "Mine to Possess," where she already shows major agency in terms taking actions and having consequences on the plot. In MtP, Ashaya Alleine is introduced as a psy scientist in an underground lab. Although we don't understand her motivations in MtP, Ashaya's actions are crucial in terms of the resolution of the plot:  She foils the plans of the villains by faking the death of two children who were being held in her lab, and risks her life to contact Talin McKade (the heroine of MtP) so that these children, Jon and Noor, can be taken to safety

In exchange for taking these actions to the benefit of the hero and heroine of MtP, Ashaya extracts a favour from Dark River, to be fulfilled at a later specified date. It is the fulfilment of this favour that precipitates beginning of the fifth book, HtP.

In the opening scenes of HtP, Dorian Christensen, our hero, is rescuing Keenan Aleine, Ashaya's four-year old son, from the Psy-Concil in order to fulfill Ashaya's promised favour. Thus Ashaya's actions from the previous book have triggered a major plot point in her own book, and her agency doesn't stop there. She then fakes her own death in order to escape the constant surveillance of the Psy Council, with the help of contacts among the Psy Rebels. She then - in my favourite scene in the whole series - gives a news broadcast in which she reveals highly sensitive information about the Psy Council. This news broadcast is meant to protect her son - Ashaya's goal is to make herself so high-profile that killing her son (as a means of coercing her) has too many political ramifications for the Psy Council to justify. But it is a world-changing news broadcast - in revealing the information (part truth and part lie), Ashaya Aleine singlehandedly dismantles "Protocol One," the plot by the Psy Council to increase their iron-clad control over the Psy population. The consequences of her broadcast drive not only the plot of HtP, but cause an increase in Rebel Psy sympathies among the Psy Population, which has major consquences for several of the following books in the Psy-Changeling series. There is no way that a Sexy Lamp could have so much effect on the plotline of the story.

Ashaya's news broadcast is also, in my opinion, super-ballsy. Criticizing the Psy-Council in the world of the Psy-Changeling books is not a proposition for the faint of heart - this is an action that could result in Ashaya being secretly captured and "mentally reconditioned" - i.e., essentially being turned into a vegetable. It is also interesting to note that Ashaya Aleine is an M-Psy - her Psy abilities are completely non-combatant, and she has no training in fighting or in the use of weapons. She shows major agency without being one of the ubiquitous butt-kicking hard-talking "strong women" that are so prevalent in UF/PNR (and media aiming to be somewhat more feminist, in general).

Sexy Lamp Test: 


From the previous discussion of how Ashaya passes the Sexy Lamp Test, you can see that HtP also passes the Mako Mori test. HtP

(i) has a female character (Ashaya)
(ii) who has her own narrative arc (saving her son and herself from the Psy Council), and 
(iii) that narrative arc is not about supporting a man's narrative arc

Mako Mori Test: 

4.0 HtP and the BECHDEL TEST

HtP also passes the Bechdel test, as it

(i) has at least two women in it, 
(ii) shows those women having a conversation, where 
(iii) the aforementioned conversation is about something other than a man.

For instance, early on in the book, Ashaya has a conversation with Mercy, a Dark River Sentinel (and the heroine of the following book, "Branded by Fire"). They talk about Ashaya's injured leg as Mercy performs first aid, and discuss anaesthetics and treatment. The heroine from book 1, Sascha Duncan, has a conversation with Ashaya's sister Amara. They discuss Amara's sociopathy and Sascha's Psy abilities. Ashaya also has a conversation with Tamsin, Dark River's healer. It's not completely clear whether or not this conversation counts as a pass for the Bechdel test: Ashaya and Tamsin talk about Keenan, Ashaya's four-year old son, and whether Keenan's Psy abilities could be harmful to himself and others. They end up agreeing to disagree about whether or not Keenan would be safe to have around Tamsin's own twin boys, Julian and Roman. Although this conversation is technically about male characters, one could argue that Keenan, Julian and Roman are children, and therefore do not count as "men." 

Bechdel Test: 

So all in all, HtP passes all three of the selected tests for feminism. 


Because HtP is a romance, I think it's important to see if the hero also passes the Sexy Lamp and Mako Mori tests; it would be problematic romance novels merely mirror-imaged the stereotype, and treated male characters the way the mass media treats female characters. 

As mentioned previously, HtP opens with Dorian Christensen rescuing Keenan Aleine from the "protective custody" of the Psy Council. His actions are thus crucial in setting up the main plot arc of the book; if he hadn't rescued Keenan, Ashaya would not have put her own escape into motion. His actions are also crucial in removing the threats to Ashaya and Keenan's lives that are triggered by parts of Ashaya's broadcast, and in getting Ashaya to throw off the veneer of her Silence. This shows that Dorian passes the Sexy Lamp test.

My Interpretation of Dorian Christensen
Although Dorian plays a supporting role in what I determine to be the main narrative arc of HtP, he also has his own narrative arc, although it is an internal one. Dorian, a Dark River sentinel, was first introduced in the first Psy-Changeling book: Dorian's sister was murdered by a serial killer, who turned out to be a member of the Psy Council. The killer's actions (along with the actions of many other Psy serial killers) were facilitated and hushed up by the rest of the Psy Council in order to maintain the appearance of a violence-free Psy society.

So in book five, Dorian is still dealing with the loss of his sister, Kylie, and the very deep hatred of the Psy Council and Silence that Kylie's murder set into motion. This conflicts with his inexplicable attraction to Ashaya, a scientist who worked for the Psy council and has the outward appearance of Silence; Dorian's narrative arc is about him dealing with the loss of Kylie, along with dealing with the guilt that his attraction to Ashaya elicits. Dorian thus has his own narrative arc, which is not about supporting Ashaya's narrative arc. He thus passes the Mako Mori test as well.

In conclusion, despite the cheesy title, I feel completely justified in loving HtP. It not only passes all three of my selected tests for feminism, it passes them uncontroversially and with ease.

Sexy Lamp Test:  1/1
Mako Mori Test:  3/3
Bechdel Test:  3/3

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