A few weeks (months? years? what is time?) ago I read the third book in Nalini Singh’s Hard Play series, Love Hard as an advance reader copy from NetGalley. I liked it. I liked it enough that when I had some extra cash I bought the first two books, Cherish Hard and Rebel Hard. I didn’t read them though. After a really stressful morning, I sat down to unwind for a few minutes with a book and ended up reading those two books back to back in just a few hours. I didn’t refill my water, I didn’t go pee, I didn’t do anything, I just read straight through. I read them so fast I feel like I left my body, plugged into a different world, and now I have to return to this one. Pandemic anxiety brain is a real trip.
Nalini Singh is better known for her two massive paranormal romance (PNR) series – Psy Changeling and Guild Hunter. The Hard Play series is straight contemporary romance set in current day Auckland, New Zealand.
Cherish Hard and Rebel Hard have overlapping time frame and focus on two couples who are also friends. Rebel Hard is the stronger of the two books. You don’t have to read one to understand the other, but they are both such fluffy reads, why not?
Isa Rain and Nayna Sharma have been friends since they were young teens. Isa’s divorced parents were more focused on building their corporate empires and remarrying than on raising their daughter. Nayna grew up in Auckland’s Indian community with very strict parents who perhaps paid too much attention. Isa wants to find love and start a family of her own while still making sure her younger siblings maintain a relationship with their mother, nicknamed The Dragon. Nayna has agreed to let her parents introduce her to marriage prospects, but as she thinks about becoming a wife, she realizes she doesn’t want to continue to live according to the expectations of others.
One of the things Singh communicates really well is the push/pull of familial love and expectations. Isa and Sailor and Nayna and Raj have to figure out how to balance personal desires, family expectations, past hurts and preconceptions about what they want their futures to look like in order to build a future with this other person. Sailor was my least favorite of all the main characters, but even he comes to understand that building a future with Isa means treating her like a partner, opening up and listening to her input.
Rebel Hard is clearly the book that had Nalini Singh’s heart. The characters are rich and nuanced to a degree that Cherish Hard just didn’t quite reach. It probably helps that Singh is pulling from her own experience as an Indian New Zealander. Nayna is so conflicted about Raj and the whole idea of getting married, and Raj is willing to fight for her, but never dismisses her concerns and fears. Raj gives her the space to decide what she wants and accepts that she may decide she doesn’t want marriage at all. Of all the MCs, he is the fastest to drop ideas of what he thought he wanted and the most willing to compromise to win the future with the woman he is coming to love. He and Nayna have the biggest growth arcs. Their romance is firmly rooted in their families and tradition in ways that are obstacles but also bind them together.
“You love her as my Nayna deserves to be loved. Don’t lose faith in your own ability to grow.”
Raj stared down at the seamed lines of her face, feeling the sense of tightness around his chest snap. “Midnight walks and shared secrets?”
Aji’s smile was luminous. “See? You understand.”
She opened the back door. “Love grows when it is tended.”
Neither book is perfect. but they were a fast and satisfying read. I’m not sure I dare to read anything romantic while I have Nayna and Raj still in my head. I’m mid review on 4 other romances, so that should be fun. Maybe I’ll reread Murderbot again.