Melinda: We’re excited to be back and once again have a new dynamic to examine with two alpha changelings in a mated pair with Mercy and Riley. But first we need to give a content warning for suicide of secondary characters. We don’t actually touch on that in our deep dive, but this book does have that in the plot so if that bothers you please take care of yourself and skip either all of this book or at least those parts.
So we start out with Mercy, immediately being extremely horny and I cannot state enough how much I love this detail. I know that it’s emphasized because she’s a changeling and it’s an animal need – but anytime I can see a woman being able to express a physical desire like this and it being so normalized I immediately love it. But her problem is not so simple as just finding someone to sleep with because she’s so dominant.
But being a dominant female in a leopard pack where none of the dominant males pushed her buttons, that was bad. And being a dominant female in a state controlled by leopards and wolves—where only the wrong one pushed her buttons—that was extra cherry-on-top bad.
Melanie: At one point, while reading this book, I messaged Melinda to say that this book is far hotter than I remember it being. This is the 6th book in the series and I will say that the books that featured Changeling heroes have been surprisingly not as hot as say, the book that featured a Psy hero. But here, with two powerful, dominant Changeling characters matching wits and trading (mostly good natured) insults, the chemistry is really off the charts.
The book starts with Mercy’s physical needs being at odds with her fear of never being able to find her true mate.
Intimate touch was as necessary to her predator’s soul as the forest she called home…
She might want a mate with everything in her, but if he appeared, and he was the strong, take-no-shit partner she knew she needed, she might refuse to acknowledge him on the level necessary for a true mating bond.
This is the first book where the female main character is also a dominant Changeling and that leads to a lot of gender dynamics at play here, maybe more so than in the previous books.
Mercy is a DarkRiver leopard sentinel and Riley (older brother to Brenna from Caressed by Ice) is a senior SnowDancer wolf lieutenant. Both are powerful forces within their respective packs, strong, stubborn, independent, and constantly at odds with each other.
To say Mercy and Riley get right down to it, almost immediately when the book starts, is not an exaggeration. They come across each other in the forest, aggravate and goad each other into starting a physical fight that quickly turns into something very different.
She found herself raising her body against him without realizing it, her bottom rubbing, enticing, inviting. “You tell anyone, I’ll carve out your heart.”
The actual lead up to the sex is maybe even hotter than the sex itself because it involves these two powerful individuals trying to one-up each other in a show of who’s stronger.
Melinda: They have sex at 5%! And, yes, it was intense and immediately we see how the two could be great together, but we see just as immediately that they could also be so, so bad. And one of the reasons it could turn so bad, so quickly is all of the dominance and gender that is so closely intertwined in this book.
I just want to note that both of us are very much fledgelings when it comes to figuring out the best way to talk about gender dynamics in 2021 and the best way to word all of this. We are going to do our best but we’re not experts and we’re more than happy to take feedback. I do know in 2012 when I read this I was like wow, there’s a lot here! But now…I have many more reactions to this book.
Doing this re-read I realize that this series is like a microcosm of the paranormal subgenre as a whole because I’ve read the entire series and the evolution of it is just…a beautiful thing. And like Melanie and I mentioned in our first few deep dives with consent and how it’s changed throughout the series, the same is true with gender dynamics.
Melanie: I’m not as well read in paranormal romance as Melinda – Nalini was basically one of the first authors I picked up in this sub genre. And one of the things that I really love about this series and the way that it progresses is that you can really pinpoint how it grows and evolves with the times. This book was originally published in 2009, a whole 3 years after the first one and already, there are some differences, not just in how the main characters in this book are written but in how even Sascha and Lucas evolve from the first book to this one.
To echo Melinda, neither one of us are well equipped to take on a discussion on gender dynamics. We’re going to attempt it but please feel free to let us know if (when) we mess it up and correct us. We’re more than willing to acknowledge any mistakes we make and to try and learn from them.
One of the big plot lines in this book is obviously due to the fact that Mercy is a DarkRiver sentinel (and the only woman currently to hold that particular position). One of the things that really fascinated me about this particular aspect of the book is that the book repeatedly makes the point that it’s easy enough for dominant Changeling males to find mates but it’s much harder for the dominant Changeling females to do so. This is especially true for Mercy because she very clearly states that she doesn’t want a submissive partner but the alternative is an equally dominant partner who may well try to control her and repress her natural tendencies to lead.
Melinda: It’s a really fascinating dynamic to look at in the packs and I love that Nalini didn’t shy away from it. I also love that we get to hear that it’s not uncommon for there to be dominant females in the changeling world, and there’s mention of previous packs with a different makeup and having 4 female Sentinels and 2 males. But we also get a whole lot of gendered stereotypes that I could have done without.
Let’s start with the classic trope of the protective male. We know going into this book that Riley is protective because of what we’d witnessed of him with Brenna, but seeing his behavior with Mercy he has definitely leveled up. We see this in slight ways in the beginning with how he reacts to Mercy’s bruises, she’d gotten from training, which as a Sentinel irritates her to no end. Something as simple as stepping on a thorn turns into a whole *thing* in this scenario
“What did you step on?” His wolf rose to the surface, protective and more than a little possessive. “Nothing.” Stubborn cat.
Taking care of the woman he was rapidly coming to consider his own was as natural to him as breathing. “It’ll be easier if you sit.” He didn’t offer to help her down, just watched to make sure she didn’t hurt herself any more.
Which, of course, comes to its inevitable blows when Riley tries to protect Mercy from going into danger on the operation they were *supposed* to be working together. I’m not exaggerating in saying I was thinking Oh Riley, no when this happened.
“And is that when you made the decision not to call me?” she asked, holding his gaze without flinching. “When you realized it might be life-threatening?” “We had no idea what we might be walking into,” he said. “The place could’ve been rigged to blow.” “Answer the question.” She didn’t break eye contact. “Yes. I didn’t want you exposed to that unstable a situation.”
“Don’t you dare treat me like your woman ever again,” she said, teeth gritted. “Not when it concerns the safety of my pack. Which is all our ‘relationship’ is going to concern as of this moment.
Melanie: I have to say, I had a lump in my throat when I read that scene. As much as I love a nurturing, caretaking hero (and there is certainly a LOT of that in Riley), the fact that he took it upon himself to keep Mercy from essentially doing her job was really hurtful. He basically spends the whole book trying to find the balance between being protective and supportive and that is a really hard line to tow for him sometimes.
One of the things we learn early on about these Changelings, especially ones in positions of authority and power, is that they have a lot of pride and ego tied up in doing their jobs and doing it well. The fact that Mercy is very much a woman does definitely add to that – she never wants to be thought of as weaker or less than.
She was a sentinel for a reason – she was fit, lethal, and well able to take down most men twice her size.
The fact that he usurps her power and keeps her from doing her job is as insulting as it is hurtful. No one wants to feel as if they’re seen as incapable in the eyes of the person they’re embarking on a relationship with. The fact that it comes from a place of protectiveness and wanting to keep Mercy safe is overshadowed by the lack of trust Riley demonstrates in Mercy’s abilities to handle herself and keep herself safe. This is especially key because when Mercy agrees to start a physical relationship with Riley, it is with the following caveat:
“I’ve got no room in my life for a male who’s going to tell me what to do.”
However, I will say that it doesn’t take Riley long to realize the error of his ways, especially after an enlightening chat with Hawke, the SnowDancer alpha.
Riley blew out a breath. “She won’t let me look after her.” And after his devastating failure in protecting his sister, he desperately needed to take care of the woman who’d become so much more than just his lover.
“Mercy’s not the kind of woman who needs looking after.”
Wise words from Hawke and when Riley admits he’s not sure he can accept that, Hawke warns him that he’ll lose her because she’s not one to accept restrictions.
There’s a lot to unpack in this short excerpt. A lot of Riley’s protective urges stem from the fact that he’s been the sole parental figure in his siblings’ lives and having Brenna kidnapped and tortured has sent his protective urges on overdrive, even with a woman like Mercy who is more than capable of handling herself. Secondly, I really love that Hawke, himself an incredibly dominant Changeling, understands in a heartbeat why Riley was in the wrong and who Mercy is and what she needs. One of my favorite parts of this series are the friendships and found family relationships within the packs and this short exchange is a beautiful representation of all of that.
Melinda: Omg stop distracting me with his good qualities Mel! I really can admit he has some, I swear. Because while I do dislike the protectiveness that comes out with Mercy, and really with Brenna too, I do understand where it comes from. There’s a part where Mercy tells him that he’s done an amazing job with raising siblings and it truly gave me chills because I don’t think he’d ever really considered that.
“But, Riley”—she cupped his face in her hands—“where do you think she learned that strength, that will? Who do you think taught her that she was that tough, that she could beat anything?”
It’s a really sweet moment to reflect on Riley stepping in to raise them, which in turn, has made him into who he is, including the protectiveness.
But let me not get too distracted with the good parts lol. Next up is possessiveness. I’ll be completely honest and say at parts this made me laugh, purely because the other potential mates in this scenario were fun. Mercy’s grandmother sending potential mates for her was a subplot I generally enjoyed, but then there were parts like this that just rubbed me the wrong way.
And if Riley walked in and smelled it, she wouldn’t be able to stop the resulting bloodshed. Part of her was irritated that she was allowing a male’s possessiveness to dictate her actions, but the other part of her was thinking like a sentinel.
I appreciated that she was thinking like a sentinel, but I really hated that she had to consider Riley’s feelings while doing her job. I think generally possessiveness is something that PNR heroes struggle with, particularly in shifter books, because many seem to lean into this., particularly around this time period.
Melanie: Ok, let me just say that the subplot of Mercy’s grandmother (herself an alpha leopard Changeling in Brazil) sending two Changelings from her pack to see if either had chemistry with Mercy was a delightful twist I didn’t see coming the first time I read it and it was really amusing. I would not mind seeing Eduardo and Joaquin pop up again, maybe even featured in their own books. (Yes, I want all the side characters except for the horrible villains to all get their own stories – basically, Nalini can never end this series).
While Mercy doesn’t want the added complication of basically starring in the Changeling version of The Bachelorette, her Gran knows best:
“…And if the man you’re seeing can’t handle a little competition, he should get out of the game.” Her voice changed, became pure alpha. “You need a tough man, Mercy. Otherwise, you’ll stomp on his heart and eat it for breakfast.”
Less amusing, however, was Riley’s reaction.
His vision glazed over at the mention of the other men. “They’re here to make a claim on you.”
“No one can make a claim on me that I don’t allow. And if you don’t know that by now, there’s no point in this conversation.”
Oh, Riley (I seemed to say that a lot in my head while reading this book, mentally shaking my head at his buffoonery). The sooner you realize that Mercy is her own person, with her own thoughts and feelings and agency to make her own choices, the better it will be for you both.
BUT – seeing as how I’ve taken on the unofficial role of also being the Riley defender in this deep dive, even though he shows up at Mercy’s doorstep later that night, intending to wait out the night outside her cabin (yes, yes creeper status activated, I KNOW), when she makes the choice to invite him in, he allows himself to be vulnerable and finally admit that he doesn’t just want her, he might also actually need her.
Man and wolf both hungered for the simple beauty of her touch. He had no power, no will to resist.
And when her arms came around him, when her fingers stroked into his hair, he buried his face in the curve of her neck and let the unexpected tenderness heal the wounds of the night.
Melinda: Right, all of the not so great behavior was balanced with actions that made Riley *just* palatable. And when I say that I think this series is such an example of the PNR subgenre as a whole I mean it started in 2009 and is still ongoing with the second generation basically. The main characters, and the entire world just kind of shifts slowly as you read to a more…advanced world view. As we go on in the series there is more and more stated, overt consent and fewer issues with gender dynamics like these. They are still there but not as present.
But I want to point out a few more examples of gender essentialism that bothered me in this book.
The older woman gave her a sour look. “Damn shame. What, you like them prettier?” A snort. “In my day, we liked men who looked like men.”
Mercy laughed. “You have to excuse them—boys suffer from an incurable disability.” “What?” “Testosterone.
Riley’s growl scared them off. “Don’t pull any shit because you want to show off.” “Wait a second.” She looked down then back up. “Nope, I haven’t grown a cock in the last few minutes. I have no need to prove whose is bigger.”
‘Dickless wonders need not apply’
I don’t think I even gave a thought to these when I read this book in 2012, but now each of them made me flinch. Gender essentialism assigns non-negotiable innate biologic traits to men and women. 2021 me absolutely does not have that world view and quite frankly I don’t read books that have a ton of these kinds of black and white statements in them.
Happily, the Psy/Changeling world does expand past this, but just like the real world it takes a bit of time to get there.
Melanie: Oof, all of those lines Melinda just mentioned made me cringe HARD. And it’s worth noting that these lines are stated by both Mercy and Riley (and in one instance, by a minor character). The book also has several instances where Mercy in particular uses the word “weak” to describe submissives which is doubly interesting because the series does spend time focusing on submissive Changelings and even featuring them as main characters in their own books and makes it clear that it takes strength to be a dominant and just as much strength to submit. The following exchange between Riley and Mercy is rife with misogyny and gender bias.
“Let me guess,” she said, thrusting aside the disturbing depth of her response, “you dream of a submissive little wolfie at home, barefoot and pregnant?”
“What’s wrong with that? You saying your submissive members have no value?”
Oh, he was annoying her on purpose. “I didn’t say that. This is about you not being able to handle a woman who’s your equal.”
A very deliberate pause. “I don’t see one nearby.”
At the risk of repeating myself, OOF.
First of all, I think we can all agree that the phrase “submissive little wolfie” just has this derogatory tone to it and comes off sounding dismissive and insulting. Secondly, Riley basically stating that he doesn’t view her as his equal, really makes me question how these two powerful individuals could ever find common ground in a true relationship. There’s this other thing Riley does where, when he and Mercy are driving somewhere in her car, he wants her to let him drive and it’s such a clichéd sign of toxic masculinity. I do appreciate that Mercy never gives in to his request and towards the end of the book, on the verge of the climactic scene, he actually requests that she drive to their intended destination and it’s an interesting turnabout for him to do that.
Melinda: All of that being said, one of the things I love about Riley and Mercy’s romance is their mating bond. Throughout, Mercy is worried because she knows the more dominant of the pair is the one whose pack will be chosen to to be *their* pack. Riley is just a smidge more dominant and Mercy is terrified to leave her pack, her family, her alpha.
But when she finally allows the bond to snap into place…neither had to give anything up. I remember being so worried about this the first time I read it, but the Web of Stars to the rescue of course. And I love how it also reinforces the alliance.
“There won’t be a loyalty issue,” Mercy said. “My loyalty is to my mate first, then my pack.”
And my favorite thing about this book – the subplot of Sienna and Hawke! This is moved forward so much here.
“Why?” she asked. “Why are you losing control this badly?”
The answer, when it came, broke Sascha’s heart. “Hawke.” It was an almost soundless whisper.
Sienna’s emotional intensity is just heartbreaking and this is the book where we start to see exactly how powerful she is and the seeds of what could be. She’s so scared of hurting others with her power that she physically removes herself from the pack to get control over her powers.
Watching people read this series for the first time I’m struck by people saying nooo, she’s so young (which, yes, she is when she first appears!). But I love how Nalini builds this up so, so, so slowly.
Melanie: Ok, two things to address regarding the points that Melinda just brought up and they both involve Riley (I promise, I see his problematic elements! But he does have some good stuff, too!).
First, when Mercy comes to him, worried about how their mating bond might impact her bond with her pack, his response just melts me.
“Maybe we can manipulate the dominance somehow,” he said, seeing possibilities, “fix it so it’s me who shifts packs,” It would rip out a massive chunk of his heart, but if it was the only way to protect his mate, he’d do it a hundred times over.
“Kitty cat, we’ll figure out a way.” Because he never wanted Mercy to feel less, feel broken. He’d savage himself before he’d allow that.
Ohhh RILEY (insert heart-eye emoji). Listen, is he a total jackass at certain moments? Sure. But once he becomes aware of the depth of his feelings for Mercy, there is literally nothing he would not do for her.
Secondly, Sienna and Hawke. When I was originally reading this series, I wanted to skip right to Kiss of Snow for NO REASON AT ALL. Melinda yelled at me (rightfully so) and I implore you, if you’re new to this series, to wait for it. The build up is excruciating and yet, exquisite. Right now, I agree – Sienna is far too young. But, she ages up, and she is mature beyond her years for all that she’s lived through. However, there is a line in this book that really speaks to me about Sienna and Hawke:
“Whatever the hell is happening between you two, make a note that several different men, me included, will kill you if you touch her. She’s not ready.”
This line, spoken by Riley, to Hawke, is fantastic for a variety of things.
It speaks to Riley’s protective nature, it shows that Sienna, despite her troublemaking attitude, is pack, and the sentence “she’s not ready” implies that currently, she’s not ready, but that perhaps one day, she will be.
Melinda: Yes, that line is so good! And it shows how the whole pack, while at Hawke’s ready, is *also* behind every single person in the pack as well. And Sienna is part of that pack now. I love how these little pieces of information say so much.
Another thing that was great to see is Toby and the idea of E designation of the Psy in general. The E are my favorite of the Psy because they are subtly powerful. Alice Eldridge and her research into that designation has implications that will reverberate over this whole story arc, and really for all of the following books. Toby being the one to sense Sienna is close to the breaking point and not knowing what to do about it just about broke me. And it made me wonder if we could ever get to the point of seeing Toby, and Kit, and the others of those ages getting a book. Because – wow – just the idea of that excites me!
My updated hero rankings:
Melanie: We cannot finish this deep-dive without addressing the overarching plot. The first few books have really focused on the Psy and the Changelings. However, lest we forget, there is a 3rd factor to consider here, humans, oftentimes seen as the weaker of the 3 groups. The Human Alliance comes into play in a major way and we meet a character named Bowen who will become an integral part of this series as it goes on.
The Human Alliance unsuccessfully tries to assassinate many of the Psy Counselors in this book which brings us one very interesting scene, courtesy of one Kaleb Krychek. After realizing that he and his home are being targeted by intruders set on killing him, he manages to get rid of them and offers this little tidbit:
Because this wasn’t truly Kaleb’s house. He was only a caretaker. And he took his responsibility very, very seriously.
The first time I read this book, this was my first clue that there might be more to Kaleb than cold-hearted murderous Psy Counselor. Now, knowing what I know, this line has so much more meaning.
Lastly, one of the things I really adore about this series which I’m sure I’ve said before and I’ll say again is that none of these books occur in a vacuum. All of the previous pairings continue to show up and it’s like an ongoing epilogue for many of them. For example, while this book definitely focuses on Mercy and Riley, it also gives us some tantalizing glimpses of Lucas and Sascha, the very first Psy Changeling couple…and Sascha, it’s revealed, is pregnant! I adore these scenes and it’s a major reason why this series continues to be such a favorite.
My updated hero ranking diverges just a little bit from Melinda’s:
As always, we hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the 6th book of the series. We’d love to hear your opinions on this book (and the previous ones as well). Feel free to let us know who your favorite pairings are. Until next time, happy reading!