Just your typical romance where an emotionally closed-off women catches the eye of a passionate man who becomes unhealthily invested in breaking down her walls. Except in this case, it’s 2079, the emotionally closed off woman has been conditioned since birth not to feel anything, and the man is not just passionate, but also half animal. Panther, to be precise. Welcome to Nalini Singh’s Slave to Sensation, where romance as paranormal urban fantasy.
Type: Futuristic urban fantasy, paranormal romance
The couple: Sascha Duncan is a twenty-something woman awash with emotion. While that characteristic is usually very well suited to a romance novel, it’s a problem in Slave to Sensation (originally published in 2006) because Sascha is part of a race required to be completely unfeeling and unemotional, and having feelings is the sort of thing that can cost you your life. Our tragically scarred hero is Lucas Hunter, an alpha changeling. In case you (like me) have no idea what that means, Lucas can transition from human form to panther form. He manages construction projects and seduces Sascha (as a human), while and running and hunting (as a panther). As one does.
Tropes: Alpha male, damsel in distress, family issues, self-sacrifice.
The story: This sci-fi plot seems to pride itself on defying a pithy summary, but here goes: Sascha is part of a race that rules pretty much everything because they have no emotion at all – the Psy are like Vulcans, but way more evil – and Sascha is the daughter of a member of the ruling oligarchy. The problem is Sascha doesn’t feel nothing. In fact, she feels A LOT OF THINGS, and she’s pretty worried that someone will find out and lobotomize her. She has even more feelings once she meets Lucas, a shape shifter, or “changeling,” with whom Sascha and her appropriately unfeeling mother are working on a construction project. And that’s just the first chapter. To further complicate things, Lucas is super busy leading the pack of his fellow changelings and dealing with a (probably Psy) serial killer. Also, all of the Psy can communicate telepathically, and the changelings touch each other a lot, but not always in a sexy way. But sometimes in a sexy way. There are also wolves and a complicated psychic web called PsyNet, but this column can’t be 10,000 words long, so let’s just let some things be a surprise.
How’s the sex? Not as weird as you’d think based on everything I’ve written so far [ed. note: lame]. Author Nalini Singh’s tying together of physical desire and emotional intimacy is surprisingly nimble given than we’re talking about a book in which the good guys are likely to shed on the furniture. She also does a nice job of playing up the relatable human characteristics of Sascha/Lucas, and as a result, the relationship between animalistic Lucas and emotionally naive Sascha never feels predatory. Yes, that’s a pun.
Is this book for you? Having mostly read about emotionally damaged humans who cross paths in a bar, I’m a little new to this type of book, but Singh has an excellent reputation in the paranormal fantasy subgenre of romance. She’s a pretty good writer, and the characters were easy to connect with, but the world-building required a little more work than I’m usually willing to put in to a romance novel. Singh seems to intentionally drop her readers into an unfamiliar setting and let them puzzle through how everything fits together. More exposition would have stalled the plot, but there’s so much going on in this book that it’s easy – at least for an urban fantasy novice – to get a little lost.
That said, the focus on plot makes it move quickly, and it’s certainly engaging. Singh tells a good, if complicated, story. The book is also quite serious in tone, and the stakes are a lot higher than whether a charming bakery owner will have a date to her ex’s wedding, or whether a handsome billionaire can open his heart to love. The entire social order is on the line here, so if you’re planning to live until 2079, mentally prepare yourself for some very grave times indeed.
And even readers new to this subgenre will recognize familiar romance markers – Sascha’s mother’s job is more important to her than Sascha is, Lucas has a female friend who explains to Sascha all of the many ways in which Lucas is damaged, Sascha and Lucas fight over who gets to sacrifice her/himself for whom, etc, etc. The comfortable formula is there, reminding us that even broken robot-people and half-human jungle creatures deserve wildly unrealistic everlasting love. And if you’re taking the time to read a book called Slave to Sensation, that’s probably what you’re after anyway.
Conclusion: If you’re looking for a lazy, easy book to read on a plane, maybe just go and look for something with a sunset or a puppy or a pair of shoes on the cover. But if you’re into paranormal futuristic fantasy fiction or just feel your romance library could use more dystopia and wolf-people, Slave to Sensation offers a walk on the wild side. You have to allow me two puns.