Last Guard by Nalini Singh

B+

Last Guard

by Nalini Singh
July 20, 2021 · Berkley
ParanormalRomanceScience Fiction/Fantasy

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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