A quick note before we delve into this month’s deep dive for Hostage to Pleasure. We’ve going to start incorporating Nalini’s Psy-Changeling novellas into our monthly reads and recaps. They may not happen every month but we’ll be adding them in when appropriate. Since this month’s read focused on the relationship between Dorian and Ashaya, we also read the novella Dorian, which can be found in the Psy-Changeling collection, Wild Embrace.
Melanie: I know we say this a lot in our deep dives, but there is so much to talk about in this book, Melinda and I are kind of at a loss on how and where to begin. Aside from our two main characters, there are a lot of supporting characters that play such pivotal roles in this particular story, it would be impossible to do a proper deep dive and not include them. Also, the plot gets complicated in major ways, answering some questions while raising many, many more. This is also a book that really illustrates the benefits of reading this series in order. A large part of Dorian’s backstory involves a major plot point found in book 1 of the series and if you skipped that book and went straight to this one, you might find yourself a little bit lost. Likewise, Ashaya’s story really begins in the previous book so, again, if you’re new to this series, Melinda and I highly recommend reading this series in order.
Having said that, let’s begin this deep dive with Dorian, a DarkRiver sentinel and a leopard changeling who happens to be latent, meaning he is unable to shift into his leopard form. I’m going to start off by making this bold proclamation: I think Dorian Christensen might be my favorite DarkRiver sentinel and has usurped Lucas as my favorite leopard Changeling. His backstory is full of heartache and loss and grief and finding himself attracted to and having sexy dreams about an ice cold Psy is, in his mind, a complication and a betrayal that he did not see coming.
Melinda: Yes, I think to start this off we have to start with Dorian and end with Ashaya because really that’s when it comes full circle. In Wild Embrace there are essentially a series of vignettes throughout Dorian’s life, reminding me how much I love this kind of thing. We get to see Dorian, at age 6, talking to his alpha about how frustrated he is at not being like his packmates.
“But I can’t shift.”
“Neither can Zeph and he’s my sentinel.” Dorian frowned, having never really considered that. Zeph was human, but he was still DarkRiver, even if he couldn’t change into a leopard.
“He’s really good at stuff.”
“Yeah, he is.” Lachlan held his gaze. “You can become good at stuff, too. You just have to work hard and never, ever forget that you’re a member of DarkRiver. What keeps us strong as a pack are our members. I can’t have you giving up.”
I absolutely love this exchange and we can see how later Dorian has is able to become an adult, fully comfortable with his place in his pack. Having people in leadership positions never questioning his place in the pack is a powerful thing and you can draw a direct line from this scene to his becoming a sentinel.
Melanie: The fact that he is so loved and so completely accepted for who he is definitely has an impact on the kind of adult he grows into.
It still hurt deep inside, and he knew it probably always would, his leopard horribly wounded, but he was a valued member of the pack and that was what mattered.
But watching an youthful Dorian play with Vaughn, Mercy, Lucas, and eventually Clay, also drives home how important his pack is to him. The scene at the beginning of the novella where he’s in the woods having fun with his friends coupled with the scene at the end of the novella when adult Dorian, finally able to transform into a leopard, again plays with his friends in the woods is a beautiful full circle moment. But the scene that really stands out for me is when he finally reveals his ability to shift to his alpha, Lucas.
Laughing, Lucas wrapped his arms around his neck and hauled him close. Dorian went, returning the hug as fiercely as it was given. When he felt wet against his neck, he realized his alpha – his friend – was crying for joy for him. And damn, fuck, he was crying, too.
These two incredibly strong, incredibly alpha men brought to tears of joy shows not only how meaningful it is to them for Dorian to finally be able to shift but also how much Dorian means to Lucas and to the whole pack, really.
Melinda: I will fully admit to crying at that scene as well…I’ll get into some of my issues with how we get there later! I loved seeing the young pack members playing together, it was a reminder of how deep and long-lasting their bonds truly are.
Another stand-out for me from the novella is when Clay is introduced to the teens. I think that Nalini is brilliant for including it, it’s incredibly brief, but we get to see this outsider introduced to what will become his fellow sentinels. I think it’s so telling that what Dorian was concerned with was how Clay would react to Mercy, a dominant female, putting him on his ass, and not how he would fit in with the group. Because in DarkRiver, they have multiple dominant females and they can’t have arrogant men who can’t deal with it. (Let’s quickly sidestep that we don’t love Clay later on lolol…)
So, that brings us to the beginning of Hostage to Pleasure and while, for me, Ashaya is the star of this book, Dorian does make me love him immediately with how he takes care of Keenan from the beginning.
The sniper growled and became a man named Dorian again, his cold control falling away to expose the deeply protective nature of his beast. He might have been born lacking the changeling ability to shift into animal form, but he carried the leopard within.
We start the book with Dorian rescuing Keenan and when Judd cuts him from the PsyNet and Keenan leans into Dorian, I completely melted. That he instinctively trusts Dorian and his mind jumps into the Web of Stars in DarkRiver? One of my favorite things about the entire book.
Melanie: Yes, I too, loved Clay’s intro to the pack and how the big concern was about him relating to Mercy. And his response to Mercy did soften me towards him a little bit…but he’s still my least favorite Psy-Changeling hero to date.
Going back to Dorian, I adored his immediate connection to Keenan and how quickly they bond. I always think children are an excellent judge of character and for Keenan, who’s been closed off from the outside world for most of his life, to immediately take to Dorian as quickly as he did, is a real testament to Dorian’s character.
Dorian looked down at the boy and felt the trapped leopard inside him rise in a protective crouch. “Then I guess he stays with us. Welcome to DarkRiver, Keenan Aleine.”
However, while he may feel a strong, protective connection to Keenan, his response to Keenan’s mother, Ashaya Aleine, is a whole different story. In order to better understand his animosity towards her and the Psy as a whole, we need to briefly return to the first book in the series, Slave to Sensation.
In that book, the villain, a Psy named Santano Enrique kidnaps, tortures, and ultimately kills Changeling women. If you’ve been following along with us or are long time fans of the series, you’ll remember one of his victims was Brenna, the heroine in Caressed by Ice. While she was luckily rescued in time, one of Enrique’s previous victims was Kylie, Dorian’s younger sister. And unlike Brenna, she was not quite as lucky and ended up butchered at the hands of Santano Enrique. The pain of losing his sister in such a horrific way has understandably left Dorian with emotional scars and an intense bias against the Psy as a whole.
Ashaya was Psy. Psy didn’t feel. So why had the Council been able to use Keenan as leverage to ensure his mother’s good behavior? It made her a mystery. Dorian had always liked mysteries. What he didn’t like were Psy in the Net, Psy who worshipped the cold, unfeeling God of Silence.
It’s fascinating to see Dorian battle his feelings of hate and anger for the Psy against his reluctant fascination and inexplicable attraction towards a woman who, defying all that the Psy stand for, helps rescue 3 children from the clutches of her own race, one of them her own son.
Melinda: Which is a recurring theme for us, because we’ve seen other DarkRiver pack members have to fight those feelings of hatred and overcome them. What’s different here is how close that connection was for Dorian, since his sister was murdered by Enrique. So he is fighting that guilt the entire book as his feelings for Shaya grows.
Turning to Ashaya Aleine, it’s no surprise I love her. She is a fierce woman who would do literally anything to protect her son. We’d been introduced to her previously when she had gotten not one, but 3, children out of the PsyNet and into the Web of Stars. And we start this book with her faking her death! I spent a small portion of a scene wondering how she was going to manage not to have an autopsy done on her body. But because she is a brilliant scientist, combined with having a strategic mind, her plan for this goes relatively smoothly and she escapes…into DarkRiver territory.
Melanie: Having previously read this book less than 2 years ago, you’d think I’d have been a little less on the edge of my seat when we’re introduced to Ashaya in this book. But you’d be WRONG. The second it dawned on me what she was planning to do when she swallowed the data chip, I was immediately drawn back into the story, waiting to see how it unfolded…even though I already KNEW how it was going to unfold! To really delve into her character and how she impacts this book, it’s best if we divide it into 3 main sections focusing on her 3 big relationships in this book: her son, Keenan, leopard changeling Dorian, and finally, her identical twin sister, Amara.
For the purposes of this recap, we’ll start with the Ashaya/Keenan relationship since that’s really the impetus for all that happens in this book. While parent/child relationships amongst the Psy are very business-like typically, Ashaya is an anomaly. Because of her actions in the previous book, she is owed a favor by the Changelings and when she asks to collect, it’s with a very surprising request.
“If you want to repay your debt,” she said, “kidnap my son.”
With her note, she’d set that very event into motion. Then she’d cashed in every favor owed to her and put psychic safeguards in place to protect Keenan against recapture through the PsyNet.
Despite Ashaya doing everything in her power to maintain her Silence, it’s obvious that she is a loving mother, deeply devoted to her son. The risks she takes, the lengths she goes to, all to ensure her son is safely away from the PsyNet, all speak to someone who has long ago breached their Silence in favor of an emotional bond with their child. I mean, she has her own son kidnapped and then fakes her own death – there really isn’t much she won’t do in an effort to protect Keenan. In her mind, the best way to keep him safe is to keep him away from her but after she fakes her death and then reawakens, she lands smack dab in the middle of DarkRiver, right at the heart of the very pack her son is now attached to.
Melinda: She loves Keenan enough to do anything, including distancing herself from him, which confuses Dorian to no end, because in the changeling world there is no leaving their children behind. One of the things I really appreciated seeing in this book is the angst from Ashaya, warring with her need to keep Keenan safe from everything, including herself.
One of my favorite scenes is when Ashaya and Dorian are together and suddenly she forces Dorian to just drive in a certain direction. Dorian is kind of stunned and questions the reasoning, because he’s worried that there may be an outside force leading them somewhere. But, it’s Keenan who somehow has let Ashaya know that he needs her right that second. She rushes to his side without question, even knowing that she may be in danger the entire time. Ashaya has been cool, collected, and brilliant the entire time…until she thinks her son is in danger.
This moment when she rushes to Keenan’s side and realizes that he is okay, and snaps him out of whatever psychic coma he’d put himself into is also the moment that Dorian sees the true Ashaya. I find it so beautiful that it’s Ashaya as a mother that is what makes him truly fall in love with her because he sees her as a complete person, instead of a cold Psy, and sees her full humanity.
Melanie: I loved that scene so much! Until then, Dorian sort of suspects that Ashaya is putting on a front with her Silence but he’s definitely frustrated by her continued refusal to drop the act. But seeing her reaction to Keenan’s ploy to get her to come to him is a real eye-opener for him.
After a fragile, frozen moment, Ashaya seemed to crumble. Her hand rose trembling to his head, her body softening and curving in a protective curl. “Oh, Keenan.” It was a whisper that held such abiding love that Dorian couldn’t believe she’d managed to hide it for so long.
What had it cost her to bury that depth of emotion?
My favorite books in this series always involve Psy characters breaking down their emotional walls but this particular story adds a layer of poignancy with the mother/son relationship between Ashaya and Keenan. It resonates even more so because of the Changelings and their attitudes towards children and the mother/child bond.
Melinda: So, then we move to the Ashaya/Amara relationship which is intricately and inextricably intertwined with Ashaya’s relationship with Keenan. Amara is Ashaya’s sociopathic twin and we slowly discover that more than the PsyNet, it’s Amara she’s truly running from. Amara has inflicted some truly horrifying violence upon her, yet Ashaya could never bring herself to truly cut all ties with her.
But the son that Ashaya loves so much turns out to actually be Amara’s, and just like Ashaya, she is also a genius. In the name of scientific progress Amara basically had a child she looked at as a science project and Ashaya has done everything since then to save Keenan’s life. Since Ashaya and Keenan were able to flee, we see Amara slowly spin out of control as she searches for Ashaya in the PsyNet, because she can’t imagine a life without her. It’s interesting to see this type of Psy personality as she loses the one person she actually cares about.
Melanie: This is the first time we see a relationship between two Psy that sort of transcends the typical familial bonds found within the PsyNet. These two are so tightly intertwined that in Amara’s mind, they’re practically one. But while Ashaya is inherently good, there is nothing good in Amara. Despite Amara being Keenan’s biological mother, it’s Ashaya who Keenan identifies as “mommy”, Ashaya who has looked after and cared for Keenan since birth, doing everything in her power to keep him safe, both from the PsyNet and especially from her sister.
While she has spent much of her life protecting Keenan, Ashaya is also protective of her sister, who is younger than her by mere minutes. Tasked by their late mother with looking after her, Ashaya understands full well the capacity Amara has for evil but can’t quite bring herself to destroy her, either. It’s really fascinating, the role sisterly relationships play in this particular book. Dorian spends much of the book angry over the brutal murder of his sister and raging against the Psy for their role in it and Ashaya spends much of the book struggling to protect her sister even while knowing full well the kind of damage her sister can cause.
While the Ashaya/Amara relationship is intrinsically linked to the Ashaya/Keenan relationship, it also impacts and is impacted by the burgeoning relationship between Ashaya and Dorian. It’s hard to fully dissect one without involving the other.
Melinda: Right, it’s such a delicate balance between the two as Ashaya loves Amara and desperately wants to protect her as she’s done her whole life and Dorian can relate to this. But Ashaya has to walk the fine line of also keeping Keenan safe from her, and I think that’s truly the overriding emotion that drives her.
So Dorian’s initial reaction to Ashaya is AS a changeling who has lost his sister to a violent Psy attack and he’s antagonistic towards her. Normally this would not work for me at all, but here it seemed that there was also a thread of attraction through all of his behavior almost immediately. They fall into flirty banter quite easily without hesitation.
“Hot damn.” Dorian whistled. “Guess you know what you’re doing after all. Brains and curves.” The admiring whistle snapped her upright.
“I had the distinct impression you wanted to kill me, not appreciate my curves.”
His teeth glinted as he gave her a grin that held a distinctly savage edge. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Dorian seems to know that he wants her, that he at least wants to sleep with her, but Ashaya has so much going on with keeping Keenan safe and making sure Amara stays away that she isn’t really clear what’s happening with Dorian. When she does realize how much she wants him, true to her character, she’s only worried about keeping Amara out, as the more her defenses are down, the more she thinks Amara can get in. I loved to see her realize that her feelings for Dorian are strong enough. And I thought it was fascinating that just being with the pack made her defenses increase!
Melanie: I think the most interesting thing about Ashaya clinging to her Silence is that she’s only doing so as a protective measure against Amara. Deep down, Dorian and she both know she’s broken Silence ages ago so if anything, her Silence is really a cover. So, the push and pull between Dorian and Ashaya over her continued Silence is less antagonistic than we’ve seen in prior books simply because Dorian already understands and sees her for who she really is.
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on with me and Ashaya, but I’ll sort it out. Bloody hell, you know me better than to think I’d ever force a woman, no matter who she is.”
Lucas stared at him, for several minutes before giving a slow nod. “She might never be willing – the first time you met her, you told us she was so cold you got frostbite.”
“I was wrong.” He’d seen the desperate flashes of love in her eyes when she spoke of Keenan, felt her hand tremble as she realized her colleagues were dead. “She’s not who I thought she was.” He just had to coax the real Ashaya Aleine out of hiding.
The section speaks volumes about who Dorian is and how he sees Ashaya. It addresses consent: he’s not going to force her out of her shell, though he’s not above a little seduction. And the little signs she gives off are starting to add up in Dorian’s mind.
Ashaya might not be Sascha, with her open warmth, but she was no calculating monster, either. She’d not only cared for her mother, she loved her son. And that excused a multitude of sins.
Though Ashaya may not be willing to let go of the safety net of Silence quite yet, she does acknowledge her attraction to Dorian fairly quickly and in fact, their first sexual interaction happens due to Ashaya asking him to help her forget.
Melinda: Their sexual chemistry is off the charts and brings them closer and Dorian is stunned to realize that he’s found his mate. That he’d let the cloud of his anger almost make him miss out on this happiness kind of wakes him up and he begins to thaw towards her as Ashaya also begins to share bits and pieces of her past with him.
Ashaya has the traits of the Nalini female main character that I will always gravitate to, that unwillingness to back down, because even though Dorian has thawed towards her, he is an alpha and can veer over the line and come too condescending.
She looked at him with cool brilliance. “You have a habit of doing that – treating me like someone subservient. I’m not.”
“I’m used to dominance. It’s part of what makes me a sentinel.” Only the strongest of the pack became sentinels. They had to be the alpha’s protectors, his enforcers if need be.
“Then become unused to it in my presence,” was the immediate response. “I’m not part of your pack and even if I were, I would hold equal rank.”
I absolutely love that she is completely unafraid of Dorian and has no problem standing up to him and she flat out tells him to knock off this sort of behavior. And her reaction to him is part of why he falls even more in love with her. This backbone she has is also how she survived and escaped the Psy – that took strength and willpower.
Melanie: It’s that willpower and backbone that also finally enables her to fight for the future she wants, for Keenan, for herself, and ultimately for Dorian as well.
“Let it be sooner because I refuse to let you bury yourself for her. We stand and we fight.”
When Dorian makes her that promise, you get the sense it’s really the first time in her life that Ashaya has an actual partner, a teammate and she doesn’t have to handle her twin all by herself.
We’ve talked before about the PsyNet and the web of stars that the Changelings are creating, for lack of a better term, when they bond with Psy. It begins with Sascha and Lucas and spreads out every time a DarkRiver Changeling bonds to a Psy and in this particular book, it seems that Ashaya is very aware of the bond in a way that the previous Psy weren’t. And while she’s struggling to let go of her connection to the PsyNet, I think it’s fascinating that what ultimately propels her to finally make that jump, and complete her bond to Dorian is when he gets shot and comes very close to dying. In an effort to save his life, she gives in to the mating bond and somehow, manages to pull Amara out of the PsyNet right along with her.
She didn’t know how to cut that link, but she continued to feel the pull of the mating bond. So she gave in to it. A choice made in an instant. A choice she’d made the first time she’d heard his voice.
The bond spiraled through her like wild lightning, ripping her from the PsyNet with such fury that she felt fine blood vessels burst behind her eyelids. As her mind screamed, she was aware of Amara screaming with her, struggling to follow. Ashaya held out a psychic hand.
She had been born first. Amara was her responsibility.
It’s such an intense scene because all at once, we see all the ways in which Ashaya is being emotionally pulled, culminating in one major event. And it ultimately changes the entire course of four lives: Dorian, Ashaya, Keenan, and Amara.
Melinda: I love everything about Ashaya’s struggle to accept the mating bond because not only did she have all of these considerations to deal with, she was also thinking of Dorian’s feelings in how he would deal with Amaya before he had gotten shot.
“Oh, hell, Shaya. Don’t you dare tell me you’re fighting the mating to protect me!”
Stroking her fingers along his shadowed jaw, she shook her head in a gentle reprimand. “And what will it do to you to kill a sister?”
And it’s that moment that really gave me goosebumps because Amara represents the worst of Psy, the true sociopaths like who had murdered Dorian’s sister. Dorian hadn’t even thought of this, but in loving him, Ashaya wants to do what is best for him. The only thing that makes her able to make that leap is the idea of his death. And when Amara is pulled into the web of stars after her it’s one of those Nalini plot twists that I didn’t think was actually going to happen.
That the web of stars is able to potentially isolate the malicious part of Amara’s personality is fascinating to me and one I wish would be explored more in a later book. Although not with her as a main character because she is frightening!
And we mentioned at the beginning of the synopsis about Dorian’s latency with shifting, I love that Dorian’s been accepting of his latency his whole life, and so has the pack, as I viewed this as a disability. I have such complicated feelings about how it’s dealt with by the end, though because essentially he is cured at the end of the book. He is, extremely importantly, not cured by love, but he is literally cured by Ashaya although it’s through science. Since she’s a scientist and her power is seeing DNA I think I was okay with it? It’s complicated by my being disabled and lines like these:
I don’t want to tell my leopard that it’s going to be trapped inside me until death. I don’t want to think of it as a separate being. I want to be complete.”
Because while I understand this sentiment completely in context, viewing his latency as a disability…I am complete. With my disability. At the same time I spend a lot of time seeking treatment so I related to this as well. So, there were a lot of complicated feelings with that part.
Melanie: So, when Amara gets pulled into the web of stars, I was immediately concerned. How would her very dark, negative energy affect something so beautiful and full of light and color? But never fear, Nalini always has an answer! As Sascha explained it to Lucas when he brought up the same concerns, Amara’s link is directly and solely tied to Ashaya and their twin bond. She’s only a part of the web of stars in a very peripheral manner and could not directly influence or even look into it. And in fact, if Ashaya dies, then Amara would also die because her single psychic link is through Ashaya. However, Ashaya, through her mating bond to Dorian, is connected to the entire DarkRiver pack and doesn’t rely solely on Amara for her psychic livelihood. Whew! Complicated, I know but such a fascinating look at how these bonds work outside the PsyNet.
Secondly, regarding Dorian’s latency, this is such a fascinating thing you bring up, Melinda. Because, I too, saw it as a disability and I don’t think I would have minded in the least if the ending of the book played out differently, with Dorian coming to terms with his latency and learning to accept that he already IS complete regardless of his inability to shift. However, the whole idea of changelings having their human side and their leopard side (or wolf or whatever type of changeling they are), certainly adds a layer of nuance to the issue.
I also appreciate the idea that Dorian isn’t “cured”, for lack of a better term through love but through science and specifically Ashaya’s scientific brilliance. However, there’s a passage in the book when Ashaya reveals she’s figured out how to correct Dorian’s latency that does give me a slight pause.
“I don’t think I could have done it without being mated to you, not even with my abilities.” Her eyes filled with the devotion of a strong woman for her man. “It gives me a connection to you that’s so deep, the work’s intuitive. It’s like my gift recognizes you on a primal level. Once I stopped trying to think and let instinct guide me, it was almost easy.”
I do wish it wasn’t the mating bond that allowed her to have this breakthrough because it makes it seem like she couldn’t have done this for any other changeling with a similar latency issue, she could only do it for Dorian because of their mating bond. However, I do love the fact that Ashaya makes it very clear to Dorian that his latency in no way impacts how she feels about him, that she would love him even if he were, in her words, “a damn wolf.”
Melinda: Right, I’m conflicted about it but it wasn’t something that stuck out enough for me to detract anything from the book. I do think that reading the novella made me appreciate and fully love how the pack doesn’t care about Dorian’s latency. Without that background I would have been more upset with this outcome we got.
Okay, phew! We warned you this book contained so much to go over. Besides all of these main plots we get the delight of seeing the friendship of Mercy and how dedicated she is as a friend. I loved seeing her fully own what she needed sexually *and* discuss this with her male friends! I remember being pretty surprised with that the first time around.
And, yet again, we get a small mention of Sienna being bratty to Hawke. Every single time it makes me laugh at what’s to come.
For my ranking of heroes this is where I am currently:
Melanie: This was definitely one of our longest recaps because there was so much we couldn’t leave out. Aside from the Dorian/Ashaya/Keenan/Amara plot line that takes up so much of the book, there are of course other storylines that come into play with the Psy Council starting to show some serious fractures, Kaleb’s rise to power, more signs of a Psy rebellion from unexpected sources, and hints of what’s to come with Mercy, the last remaining single DarkRiver sentinel. And as always, much like Melinda, every time there’s a mention of Hawke and Sienna, I just have to cackle knowing what’s on the horizon.
My hero ranking, for the first time, diverges a bit from Melinda’s:
I adored Dorian a lot and I think having a novella dedicated to his character evolution really helped nudge him into 2nd place for me.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s very lengthy Psy-Changeling deep dive and until next time, happy reading!
Lengthy, indeed! Thank you for the very thoughtful discussion, and happy reading to you as well.