It’s Hard Being Lawful Good in a Chaotic Neutral World – A Review of Her Nightly Embrace by Adi Tantimedh

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As a reader, I am far more susceptible to a pretty book cover than I sometimes care to admit. I know that I “should not judge a book by its cover”, as the old adage goes, but it is also true that a well-designed cover is going to attract my attention much more quickly than an ugly one. It is, of course, possible to love a book despite its cover: I have an immense fondness for Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga books, even though the covers tend to be rather terrible (others will argue, however, that that is part of their charm). However, it is also true that a good friend of mine whose reading tastes I trust is responsible for getting me into the Vorkosigan Saga in the first place, so it might be said that the covers were offset by the strength of the recommendation.

One of the aversions I have when it comes to cover art is the use of a human face as a dominant element. I suppose it’s because I see it used so frequently on the covers of so many books that it feels disenchantingly quotidian; it doesn’t help that most of them feature the same make and model of Forgettable White Girl/Boy/Couple as every other book on the same shelf. Or perhaps I simply prefer covers that lean more towards an artsy, more graphic and stylised aesthetic. Whatever the case may be, if there is a human face on the cover, I am not likely going to pick it up.

However, when I saw the cover of Adi Tantimedh’s Her Nightly Embrace, the first book in the Ravi PI series, I immediately sat up and took notice. Yes, there is a human face on the cover, and yes, it is a dominant element, but that face also happens to belong to Sendhil Ramamurthy, an actor most known for his role as the character Mohinder Suresh on the television show Heroes – who is also one of my favourite characters from that series. I have not been able to keep up with Ramamurthy’s career post-Heroes, so to see him turn up on a book cover, of all places, was rather surprising (albeit a pleasant surprise). As it turns out, Ramamurthy is set to play the role of the lead character in the TV adaptation of Tantimedh’s series, making his appearance on the cover sensible – and a great way of garnering attention for the future TV series while it is still in development.

Her Nightly Embrace follows Ravi Chandra Singh, a former schoolteacher-turned-private eye working for Golden Sentinels, a high-end private investigation firm whose clientele come from the wealthy upper class of British society. Ravi likes to think of himself as relatively normal in comparison to his colleagues (whom he describes as “[b]rilliant fuckups with nowhere else to go”), but he isn’t quite as normal as he likes to pretend. The truth is, Ravi can see gods: all of them, not just the Hindu gods. He likes to think it’s “just” a neuro-chemical imbalance (hence he takes medication for it), but on the other hand, he also wonders if he might not actually be an honest-to-god(s) shaman.

Either way, being able to see the gods doesn’t make living his life any easier. Between family trouble and learning to deal with the realities of his job, Ravi has enough on his plate without having to deal with the gods, too. He will just have to do what all right-minded British people do when faced with problems: keep calm, and carry on – so long as nothing about his situation manages to break his calm first.

What first drew me to this book (aside from the cover) was the suggestion that this was going to be an urban fantasy novel. When I chose to pick this up I had just come off Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree, and was in the mood for more British urban fantasy. Her Nightly Embrace isn’t quite urban fantasy, even though the blurb clearly states that Ravi can see gods. As it turns out, those gods don’t play quite as large a role as the reader might come to expect from an urban fantasy novel: their role is important, after a fashion, but the story does not really revolve around any supernatural shenanigans in the same way they typically do in an urban fantasy novel.

This is not, however, a bad thing, since Her Nightly Embrace is a very fun read even if it is not urban fantasy, nor even formatted in the same way as a standard novel. Instead of one long story, the book is cut up into four novella-length sections, each one semi-connected to the previous section but with its own story arc. This is, I suppose, a reflection of the fact that the book is tied in to a TV series, with each section equivalent to one episode. The format is interesting in that it allows the reader to explore the many different facets of Ravi’s job by looking at four separate cases, each with their own ups, downs, and unexpected surprises. This can be an enjoyable experience for readers who are more interested in plot than in world-building or character development, since it packs a lot of story in one book while still maintaining a sense of coherence.

However, the downside to the aforementioned storytelling style is that it does not leave room for solid foreshadowing when it comes to the supporting characters. Since everything is told from Ravi’s point-of-view, the episodic nature of the novel precludes an extensive use of foreshadowing. This means, therefore, that when new information about the supporting characters is given, it feels a little like it comes out of nowhere. I suppose none of this will matter in the context of the TV show, where the visual nature of the medium can be used to drop little hints and clues for viewers, but that is near-impossible to do in a book – much less a book narrated from first-person perspective, where any attempt to do a similar technique will make Ravi come off as unnaturally observant.

As for the characters themselves, I find them a fun, rather interesting bunch, though I find that I am more drawn to Ravi’s colleagues at Golden Sentinel than to Ravi himself. In order to understand why that is, it first helps to know that Ravi is a good man – and I mean that literally. The best way to describe him would be to use the Dungeons and Dragons alignment chart. While it is true that the alignment chart is not very subtle, it provides a useful tool for describing a character’s personality in broad strokes (and therefore without spoilers) with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Using this chart, Ravi might be described as Lawful Good: he tends to see things in shades of black-and-white rather than grey, and always wants to do the right thing, both in accordance to morality and the law. Because of this, he is frequently at odds with the world around him: he wants to do the right thing in the right way, but the world prevents him from doing so, because reality is messy and sometimes, doing what seems to be “the right thing” doesn’t always translate to doing “the lawful thing”. This constant moral struggle is what makes Ravi such an interesting character to read about: on one hand, it gives him an intriguing character arc, but on the other, it’s also fun to read about how Ravi reconciles his definitions of right and wrong and good and evil with what he actually does or says. Here is an excerpt that clearly showcases this personal conflict:

No amount of spiritual enlightenment would ever make me believe I was clean in my complicity. My karmic debt would have to be settled in due course, I’m sure. For now, I had to settle for managing to protect my client and getting something that passed for justice for the victims, but I was under no illusion it was real justice.

By contrast, Ravi’s colleagues at Golden Sentinels fall under other categories on the alignment chart: some might be described as Chaotic Good (believe in doing the right thing but are unwilling to be restricted by laws or codes in order to do so); others as Chaotic Neutral (don’t particularly care about good or evil as long as they get to do what they want, even if it is against the law); and a few might be Lawful Evil (use the law as a tool to exploit others for their own ends). This tends to put Ravi at odds with them – not literally, of course, but in the sense that he sees them do what they do, and has to remind himself all the time that he does not want to become as amoral as they are, like in this excerpt:

I was feeling a bit shit. Did Roger really think I would enjoy watching that poor bastard Hollis see his world come crashing down on him? Was he still trying to toughen me up, teach me something about myself that he thought I didn’t already know? My problem wasn’t that it shocked or appalled me. My problem was that it didn’t shock or appall me.

I looked at the photos of Hollis and Bambi on my phone because I just needed to rub my face in my own moral decline.

Here, then, is the reason why I find myself relating more to Ravi’s colleagues than to Ravi himself: I think along more or less the same lines as they do. I have seen enough pain and suffering fall upon those I care about to last me several lifetimes, and if I had the skills and the resources, I would do everything and anything I could to hurt those who have hurt those I love. Even better, the people of Golden Sentinels believe in the same thing I do: death is easy, but suffering lasts a lifetime – and the more poetic, the better. To be fair, they cannot actually outright kill someone, since murder is the kind of crime none of them can dodge, but they have many, many other methods at their disposal to make life exquisitely painful for whoever they think deserves it. That is something I can get behind, even if my “karma…[goes] down the drain”, as Ravi would put it.

As for the writing, I can say right now that Tantimedh has done an excellent job giving Ravi a distinct narrative voice – distinct, in particular, from Peter Grant, the main protagonist of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series. Because I picked up Tantimedh’s book immediately after finishing Aaronovitch’s, for a moment I was worried that the two protagonists would sound too much alike. Fortunately, that is not the case, and Ravi exists in my head as a character quite distinct from Peter, even though they occupy the same city and have more or less similar jobs. The one thing they share in common is their snark – different flavours of snark, to be sure, but it’s still there. But then again, that is unsurprising, since, as Ravi says: “I’m British. Our default mode is ‘snark.’ ”

The plotting is also quite good: fast-paced enough to keep the reader eagerly flipping pages, though it’s also clear that some things get lost in the midst of the headlong rush to the ending; readers may notice a faint whiff of deus ex machina (with varying degrees of intensity) underlying all four stories told in this book. Again, like the issue with foreshadowing I mentioned earlier, this might not be so noticeable or problematic in a TV show, but it does tend to stand out a bit more when a story is told via the written word. Whether or not that is a deal-breaker, however, depends entirely upon the reader.

Overall, Her Nightly Embrace is a fun, quick read, albeit with certain weaknesses that might not be so obvious on TV, compared to book format. While some readers might consider those weaknesses deal-breakers, others who are more inclined to be forgiving (or perhaps more willing to see it in light of its future existence as a TV show) will likely find themselves enjoying their ringside seat to Ravi’s interesting (and maybe slightly crazy) life, and perhaps looking forward to not just the show, but to the next book in the series.

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