Just recently, I learned there was a Psy-Changeling book by Nalini Singh — and another one coming this summer — that I hadn’t read. I tell you, I checked that shit out of the library with a swiftness. Coming off the high of Last Guard — which addressed some of my key criticisms of this series, on a meta level — I was hoping Storm Echo would sustain that peak. And while Singh does address some of my issues in this novel, the whole situation felt somewhat tired, like she was just going through the motions a bit. Singh has made use of this exact situation — uptight character, often Psy, faces inevitable death, until someone with a zest for life fucks them out of it — in more than a couple books in this series, e.g. Shield of Winter, Ocean Light. Also, the main characters met at some point in the past, forged an instant connection in some horrific trauma, and then lost each other again, e.g. Heart of Obsidian, Last Guard.
And look, I get it. Even with opening another island, so to speak, when Singh branched out to the Mercant family and the wolf and bear clans in Moscow, she’s written 20-odd full ass novels and myriad novellas, short stories, and epilogues set in this world. Recycling is inevitable, especially with the sort of themes Singh seems drawn to over and again, such as recovery from horrific trauma, both physical and psychic, and acceptance of the imperfectly healed self as worthy of both love and acceptance. Themes which are the reason I keep coming back, I might add, especially when paired with her focus on simple, physical pleasures like the heat of a cup of tea, or the soft fit of clothes that make you feel good to wear. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but I just love that beautiful life philosophy mixed with an unflinching acknowledgement that shit’s sometimes fucked.
We’ve seen Ivan Mercant before, most notably in Silver Silence and Last Guard, which both focus on members of the Mercant family, all of whom are the grandchildren of Ena Mercant. Silver is the heir apparent; Arwen is the clothes-horsey gay; Canto is the grouchy disabled guy; and Ivan is the assassin, question mark? Sometime just before the fall of Silence — notably, when the Psy were going nutso and murder-spreeing due to rot in the PsyNet — Ivan was training at some lunatic survivalist center run by wolf Changelings, when he ran across a woman called Leilei (a nickname for Soleil) in the woods. He’s all messed up from the insane training, and because she is a Changeling healer, she orders him to sit down and let her patch him up. He’s clearly smitten from the first, but doesn’t exactly understand what motivates him to keep seeking her out. They enact a quietly adorable courtship until some massively bad shit goes down, and he loses track of her. Most of the novel then catches up to them seven or so years later. Also some bullshit with the Scarabs is happening, but I’ll address that later.
Now, usually, I am not that into characters who fall into insta-love, but don’t know they’ve fallen into insta-love; what are these feelings I’m feeling; what agony; &c. But somehow it worked for me here. It’s funny to think of those early Psy-Changeling books and how clumsy and bizarre some of those courtships were — Lucas Hunter was a straight up stalker, for example — and compare it to the fragile, tenuous connection Ivan and Soleil forge in Storm Echo. Singh doesn’t put too much weight on their connection at first, but lets it build slowly as they circle closer and closer to one another. It’s aching. Frankly, I haven’t ever thought of Singh as adept at pining before — there’s usually at least one of a pairing who’s a big dumb dominant who’s going to big dumb dominate the other — but Storm Echo shows she’s added it to her repertoire. (Or maybe expanded it? You could probably argue that Aden and Zaira from Shards of Hope have some successful pining too.) After their meet-cute and nascent courtship, Soleil is grievously and almost mortally injured in one of those Psy attacks that were happening when the PsyNet was rotting. Because of some football-hiding, Ivan didn’t know her legal name, and assumed she didn’t come to meet him because she just wasn’t that into him. When he learns about the attack, he tries to track her down, but in the ensuing chaos, a lot of records were incomplete or lost.
Which brings me to something I love to see in Psy-Changeling novels: a shitty predatory Changeling pack. Soleil is part of the SkyElm pack, which was originally run by her asshole of a grandfather. He was mad her mom ran off with a human, and only accepted Soleil back into SkyElm when her parents were killed in a car accident. Despite Soleil being a healer — which is a structurally important part of the pack — her grandfather was a huge dick to her, a cruelty which is continued by Monroe, the pack alpha after her grandfather. After the Psy massacre — which only Monroe, Soleil, and a handful of other pack members survive — Monroe throws her out of the pack. Not long after this, Monroe makes the strategically fatal blunder of fucking around with Lucas Hunter, leader of DarkRiver and all around badass, after which he fatally finds out. The remaining SkyElm members are folded into DarkRiver, but because Soleil was packless and drifting, she doesn’t know that they’re still alive. She thinks Hunter has killed them all.
I’ve said this before, but I’m going to hum a few bars because I believe it: Both mate-bonding and pack-bonding are emotional mechanisms which often cast Changelings as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which can make them hard to relate to and more than a little high-handed. One could argue — and I have — the duality of the Psy and Changelings coming together is the ultimate thrust of the series: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse and sociopathy must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. Packs like SkyElm show us Changelings can be just a venal, small-minded, and racist as the rest of us fumblers. For instance, Soleil’s grandfather limited the pack to ocelot Changelings only, something Monroe continued, which lead to structural insufficiency, i.e. not enough dominants. I think this explanation is kind of garbage, but this is explicitly the in-world argument for why SkyElm sucked and got itself wiped out of existence: there weren’t enough cop-types around when shit went down, so everyone got murdered.
I have some trouble with this, a little because it allows DarkRiver to get up on a high horse and ride around on it foreverrrr, and a lot because ultimately SkyElm didn’t get all murdered because of bad leadership, but because a bunch of Psy randomly started killing folk. The outbreak of Psy violence and its horrific effects were not natural consequences of SkyElm’s bad leadership, except obliquely. Be that as it may, I still appreciate examples of the benevolent Changelings not being so benevolent. The trajectory of much of the book is about both Soleil and Ivan — who have been loners either by choice or circumstance for much of their adult lives — coming to accept the love and affection of their families — found or otherwise. I continue to enjoy how the Mercants kept an emotional core to their family, even under Silence, and I completely loved how Ivan was folded into the Mercant family after the death of his mother. (There’s a spoiler here involving his mother’s parentage, so I’m not going to get into it, but suffice it to say: Ena Mercant is a GOAT.)
I found Ivan’s backstory particularly moving, partially because I don’t feel like Singh has been especially kind to addicts in this series. I recently reread Caressed by Ice, which is only the third in the series, and the sneering dismissal of addicts as “weak” really stood out for me. Ivan’s mother was a hot mess and did unforgivable things — such as taking the Psy drug Jax why she was pregnant — but she is afforded a little compassion and understanding, even if it goes almost completely unsaid. Many, many of the Psy protagonists in this series are subject to just horrific abuse, either by parents or people acting in loco parentis. Ivan certainly suffered under his mother’s indifferent care. I even think the way Singh shows how the good times — when Ivan’s mom is on a good high and telling tales about how they’re going to live in a nice apartment and she’s going to have a job, etc — are sometimes worse than the hungry, dark moments, because it’s the hope that gets you.
Eventually, we learn who Ivan’s mother’s mother is, and, while it’s never dramatized, that had to have been a truly traumatic childhood. I think we can understand why she decided to check out, even if obviously that’s not a great thing to do, and with a child, worse. I’m not entirely sanguine about Ivan deciding not to extra-judicially murder dealers because it makes Soleil have a sad, because he shouldn’t have been extra-judicially murdering dealers in the first place, but baby steps on accepting that addiction is an illness, and literally, by definition, outside of someone’s control. So. The things I enjoyed about Storm Echo ended up being more meta than specific, more about the texture of the world than this specific pairing. Both Ivan and Soleil are a little basic, with basic problems. And you know what? I’m mostly fine with it. With a series this long, I’m ok with installments that just edge the mythology forward.
Which reminds me! I was going to talk about the Scarabs. The Scarabs, and the Scarab Queen (or Architect) have been the antagonist for most, if not all, of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books (which is kind of Psy-Changeling, Season 2, starting at the fall of Silence.) Tbh, none of the Scarab mythology has interested me at all, so I have only the most tenuous grasp on what even is going on. Maybe some Psy have their powers go nuts and then their heads explode? I have zero idea why they’re even called Scarabs. This evolving mythology gets a lot of page time in Storm Echo, enough that it made me want to either wiki wtf is happening, or figure out the last book with a major mythology dump and reread. I’m definitely going to reread Last Guard, because I know I freaking loved that one, and I never wrote about it at all. If I measured success solely by how engaged I am with a series, all other considerations be damned, Psy-Changeling is crazy successful. It’s a decent metric in the end, because I love how into this series I am, and I love how Singh just keeps sinking the hook, again and again.