Branded by Fire was one of my most-awaited novels of the year, and it has definitely been worth the wait. The sixth novel in bestselling author Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series is packed with political intrigues, explosions, beloved characters, and a surprisingly strong romance that’s placed firmly at the centre of the story.
Mercy is a DarkRiver sentinel, the frontline defence for her leopard changeling pack. She has an awfully strong itch, and it seems the only one who can scratch it is Riley Kincaid, a lieutenant for the neighbouring wolf pack, SnowRiver. That’s assuming she doesn’t scratch him first. Mercy and Riley are equivalently ranked soldiers in different packs, and neither is used to giving up control.
Alpha vs. alpha
For Mercy, it’s a particularly painful dilemma. As a sentinel, as a dominant female, her chances of mating are slim. She could never be attracted to a weaker male, and yet her leopard nature may never accept a dominant mate. Worse, she’s attracted to the wrong changeling. As in wrong pack. And she’s attracted in a big way. So is he. Also in a big way.
The first chapter of this book? Holy crap, it’s hot enough to burn the pages. I could not put it down.
When a changeling scientist is kidnapped, Mercy and Riley are forced to work closely to find him before it’s too late, and it becomes impossible to ignore their animal attraction (heh). Sex isn’t the problem, though. Their battle for control is. Riley’s dominant nature wants to protect Mercy when she’s put in danger—which, as a sentinel, she often is.
Mercy can’t stand it. Not only does she love her job, it’s not in her nature to hide behind a dominant male for protection. She despairs that she may never find a mate because of her inability to give up control, and she’s afraid that even accepting a lover’s bond with Riley will be enough to scar her emotionally when he eventually finds his true mate.
All that’s good about alpha romances
Singh is first and foremost a romance writer, and, whatever problems I may have had with this book, the romance is top notch. She understands what we love about strong heroes—and heroines—and knows just how far to push without turning the characters into bullies or stalkers or whatever else we hate about alphas.
The way Mercy and Riley’s relationship is unfolded, broken, repaired, strengthened and resolved is done so beautifully. Their conflict isn’t trivial, and the push-and-pull for control is both fun and excruciating. I was barracking for both of them the entire time, and not once did I feel like one should surrender to the other.
Of the Psy-Changeling heroines so far, Mercy is the strongest physically. Singh doesn’t downplay this, but uses it to provoke Riley and challenge his assumptions about what he wants in his mate. Riley’s over-protectiveness—a natural trait in dominant males—is exacerbated by his guilt over having failed to protect his sister Brenna from her brutal ordeal (in Slave to Sensation). But it won’t work with Mercy, because to protect her is to stifle her very nature.
The tiny steps that Riley takes to get to a place where he’s able to let Mercy be herself are beautifully done. Likewise, the concessions Mercy makes to reveal her vulnerability are subtle and lovely. Nothing about their emotional development seems contrived.
And because Singh likes to tease, she tosses is a couple of Portuguese cats into the mix. Mercy’s grandmother, alpha of her pack, sends 2 of her sentinels to pursue Mercy and see if they can be potential mates. Singh had a lot of fun with this subplot (and so did I).
Animal vs. human
Between humans, changelings and Psy, my favourite characters in this series have been—no contest—the changelings. I think this is because of the way that Singh handles the interplay between animal and human, and the way she captures nuances that add so much more depth to the characters and their emotions. They’re also very playful creatures, and Singh allows her characters plenty of fun.
For the first time in the series, we see an inter-pack relationship. Singh imbues their courtship with small but delicious details that reflect each character’s animal. Mercy is feline—she likes to lick and stroke and purr. Riley is wolfish—he likes to nip and chase and conquer. And although biology would seem to be a problem, Mercy and Riley’s humanity trumps their animal side when it comes to procreation.
The real issue is their blood oath to their alpha leaders, and the conflicting loyalties that being together brings. They’re privy to their pack’s secrets, and accepting the mating bond means that one of them will have to separate from pack:
“You’re not going to give up your mate to stay in your pack.” Ground out through clenched teeth.
She couldn’t argue with him. “No.” Having a mate was a gift, a brilliance of being. “But it’ll destroy a part of me. I won’t be the same woman. I’ll be less… I don’t know if my leopard can accept that.”
…”If that happens, if yours is the bond that breaks,” Riley said, sitting up to face her, “SnowDancer will treat you as its own, you know that. You know.”
“The woman understands,” she said softly, breaking his heart with her sorrow, “but the leopard doesnt. All it knows is that if I take my wolf, I might lose everything else that ever mattered.”
Beyond the romance
In between the jungle sex, Mercy and Riley are involved in averting a plot by the Human Alliance to show their strength by blowing things up. We also see some of the machinations within the Psy Council, the Ghost, and shifting loyalties and more ambiguity surrounding familiar Psy characters. Even the changeling world expands, and Singh introduces new characters from other changeling communities.
A lot happens in the background, and it doesn’t always intersect directly with Mercy and Riley. It’s impossible to follow these threads if you’re not familiar with the previous books, but at the same time, it’s easy to skim these parts if your main interest is the romance. The transitions between the Psy world and the human/changeling world are often abrupt and sometimes awkwardly placed. This is something I’ve been noticing more and more, and it’s due to the fact that part of the overarching series plot happens in places where the main characters of this book don’t go to.
Although I think too many plot strands are woven unnecessarily into this book, I appreciate that Singh holds back on revealing more about absolutely everyone. We see some of the secondary characters, but most stay off-page or pass through without fuss. I think Singh could have held back a bit more, but I doubt fans of previous couples in the series will mind.
And one more thing…
I have to talk about Hawke. My anticipation of his book borders on being unhealthy.
*** SPOILER (about Hawke!) ***
If I was in any doubt about his heroine, my mind is settled after reading Branded by Fire. I love that he’s in the book, but for the first time Singh leaves us with an unresolved emotional plot. I understand that this is important because many things have to happen before Hawke and Sienna get their book, but I hope this doesn’t become a habit. I loved Mercy and Riley’s story, but the question marks over Hawke and Sienna dampened the ending for me.
*** END SPOILER ***
Yay or nay?
I did say this is a keeper. Branded by Fire is my second favourite book in the series (after Slave to Sensation). It’s worth catching up on all the previous books in the series to get the most out of this book, but the romance stands on its own and ticks all the right boxes for me. It’s good to know we won’t have to wait long for the next book in the series: Blaze of Memory comes out in November.
Branded by Fire is published in the US by Berkley Sensation (Penguin). Its official release date is July 7, but it’s already available in some Australian bookstores. (I got mine from Galaxy Bookshop.) You can read an excerpt here (NSFW).
Where you can buy this book
AUSTRALIA: Booktopia | Dymocks | Ever After | Fishpond | Galaxy | Intrigue | Nile | Rendezvous | Romance Direct | Romantic Reflections | Siren | More
EBOOKS: Books On Board | Dymocks | eBooks.com | Fictionwise | Kindle
WORLDWIDE: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Book Depository | Borders