Monday, January 5, 2015

Burn for Me (Hidden Legacy #1) by Ilona Andrews

When Nevada Baylor’s family were forced to mortgage the family detective business to the powerful mage family House Montgomery, they knew there was a risk (getting involved with the powerful Primes is always a risk). But they didn’t expect to be given a suicide mission.

Nevada has to find Adam Pierce, anarchist son of a powerful House, and bring him home. Before the police find him or kill him – because Adam is an immensely powerful Prime Pyrokinetic wanted for burning people to death. And he’s not likely to come quietly.
“Mad” Rogan also has his own reasons for hunting down Adam – which leaves Nevada with not just one immensely powerful Prime to work around – but two.

Yes, the names Nevada and Mad Rogan are ridiculous but ignore them because genre.

The first thing which strikes me about this book is the world setting. Of course, I had pretty high expectations having read the Kate Daniels series and I’m thrilled to say they were met.

The way magic is blended into the society is really nicely done and balanced well between giving us far too much information (this being a new book) and giving us enough information for us to follow what is happening and have lots of hints of future things to develop. We can see magical rituals and artifacts, we can see a lot of the different magical abilities, the power levels and how that works (in broad terms) and we have a lot of meat to chew on and a whole lot of hints for more to come
But more than that is the way that the world has been changed by magic – again, artfully hinted at. With magic becoming the ultimate source of wealth and power a magical aristocracy has developed, ruled by Primes (the most powerful magic users) and controlling corporations, a lot of wealth and a lot of government – in fact, to some degrees the magic Houses seem to be more important than nations (though, even then, with a whole new power resource in magic the political map has also changed, with Native American nations and Mexico both arising as major powers). In turn, since magic is the main and most important resource, then magical power – through selective breeding and magical skill both obsess the House’s; it’s an interesting adjustment when power is an inherent part of the family’s own bodies not just the resources and money the House commands.
I like that there is this depth – because you can’t change our world with such a dramatic addition of powerful magic and expect it to still look a lot like ours.
This also works for a whole lot of class features – as these hyper-able, super-powered and immensely wealthy Primes and Magical Houses have an immense sense of entitlement, can often act with little oversight and even have a (slightly condescending but also honest) sense of noblesse oblige which is another interesting class angle. They exploit, use and dispose of people they consider beneath them, but still have an obligation to the city as its rulers – but that obligation is as much a self-serving interest in the system as it is any sense of honour or compassion. It’s another interesting knot to the world.
Even more than the world setting, I really like the characters – especially Nevada. She isn’t a major power, her woo-woo is useful but not all powerful and certainly nothing compared to the Primes around her. For me she hits that perfect balance between standing up for herself in the face of the Primes trying to control her and being recklessly provocative, though I would understand if there were people who thought she went too far to the latter. She draws lines around her life, she’s sharply clear that there are ways she shouldn’t be treated and, even if they have power to treat her that way anyway, she makes it clear that she isn’t just accepting that treatment. And if that means hanging up on a Prime or telling him he’s a terrible person then so be it. Yes it’s risky but it’s never defiance for the sake of defiance – it isn’t Keille independence where the “strong female character” acts out with rage for no reason – in every instance she is provoked intolerably and responds as much as she is able within the constraints of the power divide.

I also like how she works – she is that most clichéd of urban fantasy professions, a Private Investigator. And she’s good at it – she doesn’t just use woo-woo nor does she just hang around and wait for the bad guy to conveniently decide she needs to die and therefore walk into a trap. She investigates, she researches, she has her whole family team do leg work, she looks at financial records, she examines her subject’s personality and judges her actions based on it. She actually works and has skills.

She is also an amazing character and a very feminist one, she makes a wonderful point about her independence, having her own business and controlling her own destiny and how that means so much more to her than the advantages that so many of the wealthy have around her. She doesn’t have their luxury but she has freedom and agency. She recognises this not just in herself and the caged lives the wealthy live - but also in the golden chains Rogan uses to win the loyalty of his employees - rescuing them at their most vulnerable to bind them to him.

And back to that family – she has one. Yes, her father is dead (having both parents alive in an Urban Fantasy is against every rule and you will be kidnapped by the Urban Fantasy Mafia for perpetuating it), but that adds to elements of the story and the family’s current predicament beyond angst (of which there is very little). It doesn’t feel like he’s dead because dead parent = requirement. And she has a loving and supportive mother who doesn’t always agree with Nevada but is there to back her up – and has her own lethal talents. She also has siblings and cousins who have an excellent family relationship – and she as a grandmother who is a magical mechanic and also pure awesome. Families are so rare in Urban Fantasy that it’s a joy to see an extended, loving family.
Now to the romance which, I have to say, my notes are a complete confused mess over. Firstly, I have lots of notes complaining about how every guy is super-duper-unbelievably hot and needs to be described as such which gets tiresome – but then I have praise (and laughter) about the rich magical users in society using illusion to make themselves look perfect and some pretty awesome snark about the amount of illusion some of them have plastered on. Of course, that same level of over-the-top-he’s-so-hot-I-can’t-breathe continues when describing both Adam and Rogan.
I would describe Nevada and Rogan’s relationship as fraught, inevitable but containing some interesting subversions that stop me finding it terrible (it DOES take up a lot of room with Nevada describing just how smoking hot Rogan is). Rogan does terrible things, his whole reputation is based on him doing terrible things. Several times in the book we see him do terrible things and, beyond that, not hesitate or express the slightest regret for them. He doesn’t understand the need for regret and, when Nevada is also forced by circumstances to hurt people, he seems to have trouble grasping why she is troubled or even simple elements of morality Nevada takes for granted – like not killing someone even if it’s convenient to do so. Nevada hasn’t been spared Rogan’s actions either –he’s arrogant, controlling and outright kidnaps Nevada when he tries to get what he wants.
I have seen things like this in a range of Paranormal Romances and usually something will happen – the heart of gold will be revealed or the tragic past will come forth or some other thing will swoop in to make the love interest’s terrifying actions seem justified. Here we had a rather wonderful subversion of this – we have Nevada extremely attracted to Rogan, desperate to sleep with him, completely overwhelmed by his sexual appeal – and still turning round and saying no. Because no amount of steaming sexiness, massive romantic gestures or terrifying war record or repressive Prime upbringing changes the fact that Nevada isn’t safe around him and is appalled by his actions. Yes, contrary to what we read over and over again, supreme hotness does not excuse all things.

Burn for Me also suffers from having Mad Rogan not accept a no from Nevada. He says things like, “I promise you, I will win, and by the time I’m done, you won’t walk, you’ll run to jump into my bed.”  No matter how many times Nevada says no, he keep pushing.  Though Nevada makes it clear because of their differences a relationship could never be based on equality, it’s far from romantic to have the male love interest constantly pushing the protagonist in overtly aggressive ways. The one redeeming element to this that Nevada doesn't consider this ok - she is angrily opposed to his ignoring of her agency.
In terms of diversity, it’s somewhat limited. Most of the main, most prominent characters are white – Adam, Rogan, Ambrose. Nevada and her family have a whole lot a vaguely hinting ambiguity about them. Nevada is described as “tanned and blonde” and her mother is described as having “medium brown skin.” It’s a very ambiguous depiction and that’s being generous - her grandfather is described as being “huge and dark skinned” without any indication of ethnicity beyond him being from Quebec. There’s some hint at possible Native American ancestry elsewhere in her family tree but it is a very vague guess more than depiction.
We do have several POC in minor roles that I hope will be developed further in the series (including a Black woman, Lenora the District Attorney who Nevada idolises and Rogan’s Latina Dr. Daniela Arias who is somewhat amazing). We also have a showing of minor POC in background roles (like Gustave, a mechanic).

It also had some really nice points to make about imperialism, colonialism and the stealing and appropriation of other cultures - how wrong it is and how damaging it is. It’s a really clever way of talking about appropriating things you don’t understand -obviously in this case it’s a powerful magical  artefact but the symbolism is clear - westerners from Imperial cultures are taking artefacts and even cultural ideas without understanding the context or importance or significance of them.
There are no LGBT people. I’m also not thrilled with Rogan’s nickname of “Mad”, aside from the stigmatisation of mental illness, it doesn’t even fit him. Rogan isn’t unpredictable or raging or really shows any of the usual markers that would get someone the reputation as “Mad”. He’s just dangerous – the source for his being labelled “Mad” seems to be entirely based on how destructive he is.

Thankfully, we do have an actually disabled character in the form of Nevada’s mother.  She is highly capable, as will as fiercely protective of her family. Unfortunately, she has a small role in the story but because of her relationship to Nevada, it stands to reason that her character won’t suddenly disappear and may have a powerful role in the future, unless Andrews decides to invoke the dead mother trope which is far too common in this genre.  
So, not entirely perfect – but definitely intriguing. I love the world, I really like the main character (and several of the minor characters are people I want to see developed in future books) and there’s already some hints of meta-plot arising that are pulling me in and I hope will make for some complex and fascinating storylines. There’s some nice poking of tropes and a really unconventional family setting that I really enjoyed. I liked it, I liked it a lot – bring on book 2!