Here’s where I confess my most significant shortcoming as an SFF romance critic: The only paranormal romances I had read before this year were Meljean Brook’s Guardian series. They are classics for sure, but perceptive romance readers will correctly detect that this also means I have never read not even one single shifter romance. No, I had never read the Psy-Changeling series. No, the Immortals After Dark books either. No, obviously not the books by that one lady who tried to copyright the omegaverse. Luckily, the romance genre is a welcoming one, and I anticipate with pleasing expectation that my readers will drop their paranormal recs in the comments (especially paranormals by BIPOC and other marginalized authors).
For my first! ever! shifter! novel!, I doubled up and read the first two books in Suleikha Snyder’s Third Shift series (more, hopefully, to come in the future!).
Big Bad Wolf opens with some very unethical makeouts between a soon-to-be-convicted murderer and wolf shapeshifter, Joe Peluso, and Neha Ahluwalia, the lawyer and psychologist who’s been tapped to defend him. (Don’t make out with your clients, public defenders! In real life, and also in books if I’m honest, it is kind of a moral event horizon!) When someone tries to assassinate Joe before his sentencing hearing, he and Neha are forced to seek assistance from the mysterious Third Shift, a tight-knit, well-funded black ops team. The second book, Pretty Little Lion, continues Third Shift’s efforts to root out and stop the bad guys, as 3S’s Elijah plans to get closer to the next-highest-up bad guy, Mirko Astin, by honey-trapping (read: boning in a closet) Astin’s influencer girlfriend, Meghna Saxena Saunders. All in service of a more just world, of course.
It’s an uphill battle. The xenophobic president, who is unnamed in the books but is definitely T***p, won reelection in 2020 and continued to expand the scope of his white nationalist agenda, while his opposition remains scattered, distracted, and demoralized. Surveillance drones and military checkpoints curtail the actions of those the government doesn’t trust, and supernatural children are put in cages just for who they are. The team at Third Shift do not make the same choice as Half a Soul’s Dora Ettings, whose social and financial position allows her to opt out of caring what the society snobs think of her. By virtue of who the Third Shift team are—their skin tone or religion or gender or supernatural powers or all of the above—they’re marked as potential or probable enemies of a government intent on denying their humanity.
But that doesn’t mean that they’ll go quietly into that good night. Even to the extent that the members of the Third Shift team are able to leverage wealth or privilege into invisibility in their version of America, they’re simply not willing to do it. Neha could give Joe up to the authorities and get back to a life with none assassins; Neha could, in fact, not be doing public interest cases at all. The wealthier members of Third Shift, those with high-paying jobs like the human doctor Grace Leung, might be able to bank enough money to shield them from the worst of Fictional!T***p’s policies. Or they might not. Third Shift believes the fight to be morally necessary, of course, but beyond that, they recognize that individual safety within a regime of white nationalism is contingent at best. The juice, as they say, isn’t worth the squeeze.
SFF has long been prone to stories in which an invented axis for marginalization—Muggles, mutants, Grisha, orcs, aliens, name your poison honestly—stands in for one or more types of real-world otherness. White authors remain regrettably prone to appropriating the strategies of white supremacy and inflicting them on mostly white or all-white casts of fictional, plucky heroes tasked with saving the world. Snyder recognizes that while the reveal of supernaturals among us might well give rise to hostility by the ruling classes, that oppression would be additive to, not a substitution for, any one of the cornucopia of prejudices currently used to deny people their rights.
Neha and Joe, Meghna and Elijah, and all the members of Third Shift refuse to settle for the unjust systems in which they find themselves. They know they’ll never be able to set the world to rights, and they often suspect they won’t even be able to make a meaningful difference, but they keep fighting because the alternative—to accept what they’ve been handed—is unthinkable. As is common in what Racheline Maltese terms the “liberation wing” of the romance genre, the characters’ moral admiration forms a central part of their love story. Despite Joe’s insistence that he’s a bad guy, Neha maintains an unshakeable faith in him that motivates him to do good and—of course—is borne out in the end. Meghna and Elijah’s first meeting is grounded in mutual sexual manipulation, but they are immediately impressed by each other’s competence and very quickly arrive at a deeper admiration for the thirst for justice that motivates them both.
Joe’s initial crime—the reason he’s available to be unethically smooched in a jail cell—was an act of revenge against Russian mobsters who killed his friends. In the absence of any response from the authorities, who are probably in cahoots with the mobsters anyway, Joe has taken matters into his own hands. It was that or live with it; and he can’t live with it. In Snyder’s dark alternate present, as in our real one, the worst are filled with passionate intensity, armed with heavy machinery, and very, very well-funded. Despair perpetually threatens to poison these characters, and its best antidote is the power of social ties to keep them motivated and accountable.
That this doesn’t work out for him is less a function of any wrongness inherent to committing six murders, and more a function of his isolation. Between each of the core couples in the first two Third Shift series, there’s a disconnect between the one who’s isolated and the one who’s part of a community. In Big Bad Wolf, Neha has a strong, trusting connection with her lawyer friends Nate and Dustin, and she’s also part of a deeply intertwined immigrant community of Indian American family and friends. Joe—the result of shady military experimentation on shifters—is on his own. After an attempt on Joe’s life that forces the two of them to go on the run, it’s Neha who has a community and a sanctuary that can keep them safe long enough to fight another day. She muses: “Maybe after all of this was over, she’d write a book: A Desi’s Guide to Going on the Run. Item 1: Aunties get shit done.”
Pretty Little Lion’s Meghna Saxena Saunders belongs to a centuries-old activist movement called the Vidrohi, but they operate in such secrecy and isolation that she might as well be on her own. By contrast, Elijah has the whole Third Shift team behind him, people he has known for years and trusts with his life. The team may have been born of rage, but it survives because it provides the community of trust and support that’s indispensable for those who intend to keep fighting. As Grace Leung notes of Third Shift:
They didn’t get all of the big-money government contracts or the glory. They more often blundered into success than they strode deliberately. But what they had down, where they excelled, was in the trust they’d built with each other. She [Grace] knew, without a doubt, that most of the people in the room—and Nate hanging back just on the other side of the doorway—would lay down their lives for her.
From the outside, romance can seem like a strange genre to address the ins and outs of fighting fascism. SFF has more of a reputation for being the ideas man, envisioning new ways to live, new parameters for being human, new frameworks for morality; while romance maintains its tight focus on matters of the heart. But the personal, small-scale stakes of the romance novel—how will the central pairing achieve their happily ever after?—hold space for the understanding that small-scale is not synonymous with insignificant.
Accustomed to working alone, Meghna asks Elijah if his 3S operatives, whose loyalty to one another shines through everything they do, would choose their personal ties over the mission if push came to shove. It’s a fair question. Arguably, the romantic fulfillment of two little people doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But Elijah refuses the dichotomy: “You’ve met my operatives, love. They multitask.” Meghna’s missing the fact that building community is an integral part of fighting fascism, not a distraction from it. Sure, Meghna and Elijah end up together, as do Joe and Neha. The journey to personal fulfillment is not a one-person or a two-person job (nor even a three-person job, as there’s a romantic triad blossoming among the background characters), and the journey of these characters to their HEA is intimately bound up with their ability to persist in doing what’s right, whether it moves the needle on fascism of not. Love and community bolster them for the fight, giving them the strength to keep waging their small battles against the vast evils of institutionalized and violent bigotry.
Elijah (a Jamaican-British lion shifter) describes Third Shift as “a real organization fighting real battles against oppression and fascism,” but admits “the fascists keep winning no matter what happen[s].” It’s a message that hits hard in the weeks following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, when solutions seem few and inadequate. It’s also a reminder that the good fight doesn’t always bring fast, flashy victories. We fight where we can; we fight because we must.
Jenny Hamilton lives in Louisiana.