Shadow Falling is the second book of Rebecca Zanetti’s Scorpius Syndrome urban fantasy series. Characters in this world are the survivors of a genetically engineered plague that wipes out 90% of the world population, toppling governments and destroying society in its wake. It’s an interesting idea to imagine how people would recover from such a devastating tragedy; could they come together peacefully or would the need to survive at all costs supersede even the basic tenets of civilized culture?
The Scorpius infection has decimated human life across the world. With the disease still prevalent through carriers or in the environment, those who survived the first wave are left to pick up the pieces and reform society as best as they can. Unfortunately the Scorpius bacteria changes brain chemistry and those who have it all seem to fall somewhere on the Psychopathic spectrum; either warped versions of themselves or mindless zombie-like creatures out to kill.
Dr. Vivienne (Vinnie) Wellington made her living before the plague as a criminal profiler for the FBI and was among the first people to classify the Scorpius outbreak’s deadly behavioral modifications. Her knowledge of the disease makes her a valuable resource to those looking to control it or wipe it out. Vinnie was held captive by what was left of the US government and tortured by the President for her secrets until she was liberated by the Vanguard group of survivors. It is widely believed that the chemicals injected into Vinnie during her interrogations have changed her mind even more than the disease itself, giving her psychic abilities and perhaps knowledge of the secret location of a research base that holds the cure. The Vanguard faction is in the best position to protect Vinnie from the President but their leaders also hope her background as a psychologist will help all the people still struggling with the after effects of the devastation.
Her rescuer and sometime guard in Vanguard is Raze Shadow, a Navy SEAL before Scorpius and now a man without a home or country to defend. Raze’s military background served to ingratiate him into the Vanguard inner circle; however his loyalty to the faction only goes far enough to find temporary safety there until he can launch his true mission to recover his missing sister from a rival faction called the Mercenaries. To secure his sister he will have to trade Dr. Wellington to the Mercs. Raze keeps himself close to Vinnie as she recovers from her injuries in order to gain her trust so they can leave together without suspicion when the time comes.
As Vinnie slowly regains her sanity from her torture she latches on to Raze, finding stability in him when all of her senses have left her off-balance. The torture has led to a minor psychotic break that has left her with hallucinations and a strong empathy when people are in pain. Having Raze around her calms those feelings and gives Vinnie a sure footing as she tries to find her place within Vanguard. She never suspects that her protector might have an ulterior motive for being with her and she lets him slip beneath her defenses. Raze, too, is affected by their close proximity to each other and he changes the nature of their relationship by succumbing to his lust for Vinnie. Once things become physical it is difficult for him to justify his original mission and to sacrifice one woman he cares for to save another. His divided loyalties tear at his soul until Vinnie is the only person who can mend them together.
There is a lot of story happening in Shadow Falling and things are constantly building for Vinnie, Raze and many of the secondary characters. For readers like myself, who start reading the book without having read Mercury Striking, there is a very large barrier to fully understanding the tale. As the story opens Vinnie has already been saved from the evil President and has been recovering in Vanguard for a week. Things are left somewhat unclear about why she was taken by what’s left of the government and why they used her as a living experiment on how Scorpius could be manipulated through chemical interactions. Unfortunately the one idea that interested me, that Vinnie had somehow developed an empathic ability or even could read minds as a result of those experiments, is left almost completely unexplored. There is one scene where she can feel the suffering of a young man being operated on and there are hints that her hallucinations might be manifestations of the thoughts she’s picking up from the people around her. It’s never made clear though if Vinnie really has new powers because of Scorpius or if she’s just that good at reading people.
The relationship portion of the story also felt unfinished or rushed in order to allow space for all of the world building necessary to set up the future installments of the series. Vinnie and Raze share their “I Love You’s” but it is much more of a happy for now kind of relationship. Vinnie herself questions how true the emotions she feels for Raze are and if she would still feel the same if the world hadn’t ended around them. Emotions are probably a very small portion of how they connect with each other and it’s very clear from Raze’s point of view that sexual release and the need to possess Vinnie are what drive his side of the relationship.
One part of the book that I have to touch on is how the balance of power within Raze and Vinnie’s relationship is set-up. Raze is written to be the most alpha of Alpha males, with an intense personality that can border on obsessive. He basically claims Vinnie from almost the moment she is brought into Vanguard, first as someone to trade with the Mercenaries and then as his woman. I was deeply troubled by how unhealthy his demeanor is towards her as it feels more like an abusive relationship than a romantic one to me. Vinnie is attracted to Raze and she does participate in their sexual liaison, but there are times when she tries to assert her own feelings and ideas into their partnership and she is basically informed by Raze that she is wrong and he’s right. One moment that stands out to illustrate the dysfunction is when Vinnie asks Raze point blank if she is free to leave the Vanguard group and go out on her own. It’s told from both of their viewpoints and we see Raze get angry that she’d want to leave while Vinnie backs down from her request when she sees his disappointment at her wanting freedom. We’re told from his viewpoint that he’d follow her (or in other words, he wouldn’t let her leave him). It’s supposed to be romantic but it just screamed unhealthy to me.
I can honestly say I had quite the reaction while reading Shadow Falling; it wasn’t positive and most of it is unfit to print. The few parts of the story that I liked were unfortunately overshadowed by my reaction to the main relationship. Other readers may enjoy the book as a good example of Urban Fantasy but to me it was a depressing story focused on the very worst that humanity has to offe