In a society obsessed with genetic perfection, any difference is a cause for concern. In the midst of a gorgeous love story about childhood friends reunited, Nalini Singh’s Last Guard beautifully depicts both the perils of that obsession and its alternative: a world in which difference can be strength.
Canto Mercant and Payal Rao were born into two of the wealthiest and most influential Psy families, but with privilege came a dangerous fixation. To their families, any variation is weakness, and no weakness is tolerated. When a child shows signs of being atypical in any way, they’re shuttled out of public view. Canto has limited use of his legs, and Payal has been traumatized by her brother’s physical abuse; her ensuing rage results in her being labeled mentally and emotionally unstable. Canto and Payal are both shipped off to an out-of-the-way boarding school. As “7J” and “3K” respectively, they’re subjected to terrible abuse and their lives are assumed to be unworthy of preservation.
Amid this nightmare, the two brilliant and beautiful children form a friendship, creating an unbreakable bond through small acts of kindness. In a glorious moment of defiance, Payal saves Canto from a teacher who was on the verge of killing him. The teacher dies in the melee, families are contacted, and the children removed. But Canto and Payal never forget one another. Canto’s father subscribed to toxic, eugenicist ideas of perfection, but his mother’s family, who takes him in after he leaves school, holds no such beliefs. Nurtured by the tightknit Mercants, Canto gains fierce love, protection and the best medical care. He even gains another family after he’s embraced by his cousin Silver’s Changeling mate, an alpha bear shifter named Valentin, and his rambunctious clan. But he never stops searching for 3K.
Payal returns to her father, who considers her defective and only values her as a better alternative to his violent and psychopathic son. She endures by leaving all emotion behind, rising to the position of CEO in the family business. Outwardly cold, contained and inscrutable, she’s painfully isolated and constantly fighting to stay in control. When she’s diagnosed with life-threatening brain tumors, necessary medication is meted out in small increments to keep her in line and under her father’s thumb.
The eventual reunion of these two souls would be more than enough to sustain any novel. But Singh also seamlessly intertwines wonderfully precise discussions of disability into Canto and Payal’s evolution from childhood friend to adult lovers. Ableism is not just challenged; it’s trounced as Canto and Payal talk candidly about the tools and adaptations they use to survive and thrive. Last Guard also goes deep on efforts to save the crumbling PsyNet, the psychic network in which Canto and Payal play an essential role, so while strongly recommended for its life-affirming love story, Last Guard is best enjoyed if readers are already fully immersed in Singh's Psy-Changeling lore. For readers with a firm grounding in the previous books, however, slipping back into the Psy-Changeling world in Last Guard will feel like coming home.