Book Review

Last Guard by Nalini Singh

TW/CW

Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse and torture of children in the book, and some mention below. Extreme ableism and eugenics in the novel’s backstory.

You may recall that I did a big honking re-read and catch-up with all 9,547,235 books in the Psy-Changeling and Psy-Changeling Trinity series earlier this year. When I received Last Guard I was extremely excited, because not only were much of the worldbuilding and character pairings still fresh in my mind, but also, I really wanted to read it. And I was even more excited simply because I was excited. I’m so terrible at keeping up with series that the “new book in a series” excitement is not a feeling I encounter often. (I am sad to report that usually it’s more of a, “Wait, did I read this series? I think I did? Maybe? What day is it again?” reaction.)  Who knew series excitement was so fun? Not me!

One of the strengths of the Trinity books is that they’re written in such a way that if you want to start with this one, the details and context are all there and, sure, go right ahead. Jump on in! But if you’ve followed the series faithfully, or if you’ve dropped in and out with different books, you’re just as likely to enjoy everything. There’s enough set-up and history to welcome new readers, but not so much that I think readers fluent in the world get bored. At least, I didn’t. Because the focus on different groups in the larger world and on which problem they’re facing in that world, shifts book to book, the backstory summaries focus on different aspects each time. Keeps it interesting!

One aspect of the Trinity series and of the most recent books that I absolutely love is that often, the heroine is more powerful, or more publicly known to be powerful, than the hero. And while the heroes, especially Canto, are just as strong and complex, they also are confident and eager to take a supporting role to what the heroines are doing or need to accomplish. In Last Guard, this shift (heh heh) is more explicit: Payal Rao is the CEO and public face of a massive corporation, and has a reputation as being ruthless and brilliant. She survived a deeply traumatic childhood where was tortured psychologically and emotionally by her sociopathic brother, and is still manipulated by her father behind the scenes, but to most she appears invulnerable.

Payal and Canto met as very young children at a “rehabilitation” school for Psy who exhibited traits that Psy under Silence considered significant defects. Both have endured awful upbringings, physical and emotional abuse, and abandonment. Canto, due to a piece of his origin story that I won’t spoil, suffered a spinal injury and uses a wheelchair. He’s very much a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” type of mastermind, both as a Mercant (Signature Purveyors of Information Collection Since Forever™) and as the individual developing a unified voice for the Anchors.

Psy have a psychic connection to the PsyNet, which provides biofeedback keeping them alive, and the Anchors are a recently-discovered aspect of the PsyNet. They anchor the network, basically, by repairing and maintaining the different webs of connection and by accessing an area known as the Substrate, which only they can see. The structure of the Substrate and of the Net in general is in danger and has been for many books, and a mysterious villain named The Architect is scheming to destroy the PsyNet and kill lots of Psy for whatever reason makes sense to her at the time. The Architect chapters were not as interesting, but they do forward the over-arching Trinity world plot. The individual Trinity books themselves function as Anchors, kind of, to the overall Network of the world and the story, now that I think about it.

The Anchors support geographic areas of the PsyNet, maintaining the structure enough to support the biofeedback needs of all the Psy in their territory. But while there’s a Ruling Council comprised of folks who represent most of the other major types of Psy, the Anchors aren’t represented in the governance and decisions that affect the PsyNet. Canto aims to change that by creating essentially a union of Anchors, and demands that they be part of the Ruling Council.

The allegory of the Anchor union was my favorite part of the book. The Anchors have been largely invisible, supporting the structure that keeps Psy alive, but mostly ignored, forgotten, or blithely discounted. That Canto can identify other Anchors enough to contact them to unionize is remarkable; that the unified Anchors demand representation and offer a public face in Payal is even more stunning to the Psy world.

The problems faced by the Anchors reflect the way in which our society has relied on the essential workers who hold the function of our community together – and who are also ignored, underfunded, discounted, and forgotten. They get the superficial recognition of banging pots and pans and signs and banners and corporate performance of care, but do they get substantive recognition of their work through pay increases, health support, better funding, and the essential care they need? No. The Anchors’ self-organization and demand for recognition and of support added a layer of emotional nuance and very complicated feelings for me as I followed that part of the plot (There are Several Plots because that’s how these books go usually). There are differences – Payal and Canto are wealthy and extremely powerful in some areas of their lives, while many essential workers around us are not – but the focus on the importance of support for every individual who performs a job that keeps everyone around them safe and alive made this story particularly poignant. Past books in the series have focused on the necessity of empathy and community; this one includes both themes and adds the need for recognition of those who do the work of supporting everyone.

The Psy/Trinity books often have three nested plots. There’s the innermost layer, the romance/intimate conflict between the featured protagonists, housed within the problem(s) they are facing together within their community, which are housed within the overall plot of the world in the Trinity arc. In this book, the intimate conflict between Canto and Payal focuses on their reconnecting as adults, and on overcoming the past or, in the case of Payal, ongoing abuse from parents and caregivers to embrace every aspect of themselves. They help one another level up in subtle and obvious ways as their intimacy grows, and their relationship gave me level 3 out of 5 chest tingles.

The overall plot, the outermost layer, was fine. I kinda shrugged at some of it, because The Architect is The Most Evil, and Also Repetitive in her Nefarious Musings, and, okay. Yup. Got it, ma’am. Terrible villain is terrible. The identity of the character hasn’t been revealed explicitly yet, but it’s likely the person has already been featured in a scene or two, either in this book or a prior Trinity novel. Even though I find her chapters somewhat deaccelerating to the plot, I remain curious because I bet her identity will seem obvious once I know who it is.

The middle layer, the world-problem of unionizing the Anchors that Canto and Payal are facing, was the most interesting for me, as I said, but it was also the part that resolved with less satisfaction. One hallmark of the series is increasing tension in all layers of the plot that seem collectively impossible to resolve, often appearing in opposition to the rules of the world itself. The tension increases in this book, but some of the acceleration felt uneven to me. Repeated attacks on the PsyNet, followed by another repair (Attack! Rinse! Repeat!) became less scary with each new one, and the strategy that Canto identifies to partially resolve the triage-bandage approach to the Net’s instability happened so quickly, I had to read it twice to fully understand what had happened.

The resolution of the conflict with members of Payal’s family also happened very rapidly, and while it worked as a sort of an instant pressure-release to a slowly built series of menacing actions, the figures involved were dealt with so fast, again, I had to read twice, this time for the satisfaction of vengeance. They were so creepy and so deliberate in their tactics that the lightning-quick, skim-and-you’ll-miss-it end to their terror wasn’t quite sufficient for me.

That said, the speed at which the plot just goes at the end may cause Bad Decisions Book Club, and the resolution of so many plot threads in one rush makes for some addictive reading. And the unstoppable arrival of different bears during talky scenes made for terrific comic relief.

I love this series, and I liked this installment of the Trinity arc. It didn’t flatten me emotionally like some of the books have, but it was absorbing, thoughtfully nuanced, sly and very funny at times. Last Guard will give many readers a very happy afternoon or late night of reading. As I said, the Bad Decisions Book Club risk here is definitely high!

 

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Last Guard by Nalini Singh

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  1. 1
    Silver James says:

    Okay. Now I’m totally intrigued, given the actions of the Mercant family in prevous books–especially given their family ties and “allowancnes” of those who are different, ie. Silver and her half-brother. Also, the anchors have been mentioned before but I can’t remember which of the 9M+ books that subplot was in, but someone was killing anchors and it was alluded that the Arrows knew of their existence, locations, and had been tasked with keeping them safe. Was it…CARESSED BY ICE (#3, Judd and Brenna’s story?) They were after a Psy serial killer and he either was or was going after anchors…? Maybe? Anyway. I need to listen to ALPHA NIGHT and then my re-listen of the Trinity series will be complete and I can get my ears on LAST GUARD!

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    @Silver – I love the Mercant family, too, and their role as Knight/Advisors to monarchs of the past influencing how they work now. It adds to the alpha/alpha support dynamic of the Trinity books’ pairings! Plus, information collectors and brokers are fascinating choices for character motivation. I hope you like Last Guard!

  3. 3
    LisaM says:

    I pre-ordered a paper copy of this months ago, and I spent all of yesterday on tenterhooks, waiting for the call from the bookstore- which never came. Your review makes me even more anxious to get my hands on it. (I ordered it from my favorite indie, but I did stop by my neighborhood Barnes & Noble, just to see if it was on the shelves there. Luckily for my book budget it wasn’t yet.)

  4. 4
    Susanna says:

    I had an ARC of this one, and it’s a good installment in the series.

  5. 5
    Maeve says:

    @Silver: Having just done a whole series reread, I think anchors were being attacked in multiple books. There were a few in Heart of Obsidian, it was a minor plot in Tangle of Need, and maybe one other book. I’m waiting impatiently for my library copy of Last Guard.

  6. 6
    Courtney M. says:

    @Silver James an @Maeve Tangle of Need was the one where it was central to the plot AND featured an anchor who showed up in this book. (I don’t think this is really a spoiler as it’s not central to the plot, but just in case VERY MINOR SPOILERS to Last Guard and SPOILERS to Tangle of Need ….. I had NO IDEA I was such a fan of very minor character Bjorn Thorsen until he showed up in this book and I recognized him at once. He’s the professor who ignores the Silence Protocol to chat with Adria and Riaz about what anchors do while they’re guarding him).

  7. 7
    Silver James says:

    @Courtney M., it’s been a year since I marathoned the entire series but the moment you mentioned that scene, I knew it exactly! Also, I don’t mind spoilers, especially when it means looking forward to something! @Maeve, good to know it was TANGLE OF NEED and then again in HEART OF OBSIDIAN. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve read/listened to this series so I’m obviously a huge fan. FYI, I listen to 200+ books a year in addition to writing my own so it’s a wonder I remember anything about plots or characters. LOLOL It’s a testament to Nalini’s talent that her characters (even the minor ones) are so memorable. One more item, my favorite book in the series is SILVER SILENCE, not because Silver and I share the same name but due to the Russian bears. Because…BEARS!

  8. 8
    Caro says:

    I enjoyed The Last Guard the way it advances the overall arc and seeing Canto and Payal find each other in every sense of the word was lovely. I agree the resolution to Payal’s family was very quick but maybe that’s what they deserved? They were hideous people so getting rid of them like they were nothing shows how little worth they were?

    I will say, I freakin’ love the bear clan. I love when they turn up, I would read more about them in a second. So while I liked The Last Guard, Silver Silence and Alpha Night are still my overall faves.

  9. 9
    Teev says:

    I kind of wish there wasn’t the whole Architect Big Bad plot at all (and def find the chapters from her POV tedious) and that the current series could just focus on saving the PsyNet and dealing with the smaller big bads like Payal’s awful family. I think the PsyNet damage arc is compelling on its own (climate change allegory, anyone?) and like others above, I’d much rather spend time watching Valentin discipline his tiny gangsters, or Zaira hanging with Jojo. Or really any regular day stuff going on at the Arrow compound. I love the Arrows coming out of Silence and I could have read a whole novella about their party instead of the wee bit we got in Allegiance (although I’d love another book like AoH)

  10. 10
    Katie says:

    I also pre-ordered a paper copy of this that doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon so I cracked and got an ebook (partly because I had some gift card money)…do not regret my decision.

    The scene I went back to read twice purely for enjoyment was Ena Mercant meeting Payal during tea. The Mercants as individual characters and their family dynamics are delightful. The cousin that has gone to California to make sure they have accurate information about the region has the look of sequel bait, and I welcome it. It was fun to see the way the bears have adopted Silver’s family and vice versa. What I wouldn’t give for a newsletter short story with the Mercants and Kaleb all gathered together at a bear party.

  11. 11
    LisaM says:

    @Katie My indie bookstore is telling me they *may* have my pre-ordered copy by “early next week.” Sigh. I did download the free sample chapters. And I also have a gift card.

  12. 12
    Silver James says:

    @Katie, I would pay money for that book! OMG! Mercants, Kaleb, and THE BEARS!!!! *falls over dead from laughing*

  13. 13
    TinaNoir says:

    I just finished this. I liked Canto and Payal and the low conflict romance was nice. All the drama came from the plot. And I love that we got some good face time with the bears, the other Mercants and Kaleb.

    Agreed about the quick resolution with her family. It was a little unsatisfying given how terrible they were and how much their treatment of her was a feature of the book.

    Also agreed on The Architect. So far, I think the major antagonists toward the PSY race: Silence itself and then Pure Psy and then various peoples trying to take advantage of what they perceived as a power vacuum were well done and smart. But The Architect is one of those villains I like the least those who just are evil and want to rule. No real motivation to understand. The last chapter was interesting though and sets up anticipation quite well. Singh is really good at that.

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