Dali has gotten used to being an undercover operative. Prior to joining Penumbra — a covert galactic organization charged with dealing with the odd bits of terrorism, treason, and trifling affairs that are too small for an army and require more subtlety than the local police force — they were a diplomat, an interspecies translator of languages and customs. They were a voice for reason and peace. When a terrorist attack took the lives of their spouses, their husband, wife, and unborn child, Dali’s thoughts turned first to despair, and then to vengeance.
Rion Sumner promised him that vengeance. Promised that when the people responsible for the attack were found, Dali would be there, would get to see, face to face, the individuals who had destroyed their life. And just as it seems the investigation is getting close to the first lead they’ve had, Rion calls Dali back. The Thunder Child, a Penumbra ship with a small crew of friends who might be family, if Dali’s wounded heart can bear the pain of risking love again, has been called specifically for a new mission.
Only one being in all the known universe has been able to negotiate with the Shontavians, a four-armed race of genetically created killing machines whose favorite food is living, sentient creatures. Preferably alive, and the screaming is always an excellent bonus. The Ursetu, who created these warriors, have come to the Remoliad Alliance (a galatic UN, of sorts), asking for help. A Shontavian force have esaped their cage, so to speak, and have crashed near the Ursetu palace, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The Ursetu are gearing up for a civil war as their queen is facing the end of her reign, her daughter and heir dead, and all that remains of the current royal line is a young man too easily led by his uncle.
The Alliance is sending Dali, with a collection of diplomats from a variety of races, to discover what the Shontavian want. Are they sentient? Are they a race worthy of being rescued from their slavery to their Ursetu creators? Are they nothing more than killing machines? For Dali, the answer is obvious. There are forces that don’t want Dali to succeed; someone out there, wants them dead, and their mission of peace with them.
Peacemaker is the sequel to Dali, a book I was fortunate enough to review a few years ago. While it would help, greatly, to read book one, I think you could enter into this book and enjoy it on its own merits, but why would you want to?
Dali is a changeling, a being who has no set gender. When facing stressors, such as combat or conjugal relations, hormones flood their system and enable them to change — within some limitations — the shape and form of their body. Dali can express either male or female sexual organs, can broaden their shoulders to become more physically imposing, or become softer and more rounded. But even then Dali is still Dali, still someone who is their own gender; they are not agender, more … gender neutral.
Dali is also someone still suffering, greatly, from the shock and trauma of the deaths of their family. As an empath, they often feel the emotions of those surrounding them. Hate, anger, love, grief, and all of this while Dali is no longer able to cope with their own emotions, let alone everyone else’s. Choosing sex and drugs to self-medicate, Dali turns a blind eye to their own pain. When tasked to be clean, and kept in a small company where they’re unable to simply hide from their thoughts with a quick fuck, Dali is forced to deal more with their pain than they have in the past, as well as the pain of others.
Dali’s superior, the commander of the Thunder Child, Rion Sumner, comes along on the mission to protect Dali and … perhaps because of his own mixed feelings on the ambassador Alecto Sim. Sim is, well, he’s gorgeous and Dali is very attracted, and might have done more than simply look if it weren’t for the man’s connection with Rion. Rion and Dali aren’t friends and yet, they’re close, and getting closer. As a null, Dali can’t read Rion’s emotions, which is both soothing and vexing.
Almost as vexing as Sim’s flirtation, which Dali can’t, oughtn’t, shouldn’t respond to. And oh, that isn’t the end of it. Dali’s last mission involved the mysterious and dangerous Lord Rhix, an Ursetu mercenary Dali had a … well, relationship is too fancy a word for the erotic and deadly thing between them. And the Queen has asked Dali to bring Rhix home to her. Because, as if things weren’t complicated enough, it turns out that Lord Rhix is her son, Prince Nazhir.
This is a story with a wealth of plot, twice as much politics, politeness, and pining. It’s like a Jane Austen novel in space, on crack, and with more guns and knives and cannibalism than you can shake a stick at. It’s mind your manners and ignore the fact that someone just lost a hand; smile at the creature threatening your life because you don’t want to be rude. Look but don’t touch the handsome diplomat casting eyes at you and promising you that, were things different, maybe … just maybe. Bluntly put, I loved it. It’s more fun than the first book, and I think the plotting is tighter as all the threads are being gathered together to be woven in to yet a third book, which I’m going to grab as soon as I can.
This book might not be for everyone. It’s a languid sort of pacing with a lot of hurry up and wait, but the writing is so good, and the plotting is so tight that I was able to read it one sitting. Dali’s gender isn’t as much the focus in this book as it was in the first, allowing more of Dali’s personality to be showcased, and as their past and present come together, Dali has to face the reality that they’re no longer who they were, or who they thought they were. Even so, Dali still longs for peace, still wants to help people find a gentler, kinder, harmonious path. Or, in Dali’s own words:
There will always be someone for whom violence is the only voice they feel they possess. My job is to help them find a new way to communicate.
There’s a lot to take away from this book. Gender, politics, and violence, yes, but also culture and race. Consider a race of created individuals — who cannot breed, who cannot perpetuate their own species; a collection of endlings. What rights do they have and what rights are owed them by a galactic civilization that allowed them to be used and abused? When granted freedom, what can they do with it, when nothing they do will last beyond their deaths? I say this a lot, but I am honestly looking forward to the next book in this series.