Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Dark Heart of Magic (Black Blade #2) by Jennifer Estep

It’s time for the Tournament of Blades, the annual celebration where all the magical families of Cloudburst Falls send champions to compete for the hefty cash prize (and, more importantly to the families but not for Lila, the prestige). It’s a major tourist event and there’s no way it can’t go ahead

Even if one of the competitors seems to be trying to kill the competition.

Both Lila and Devon are competing for the Sinclair family, giving them a double motive to win – and to stay alive and find out who is behind it.

This is the second book in the series and I think it is an excellent next step. This book took the story above and beyond the first and helped banish some of the parallels with the Elemental Assassins Series that I found so strong before. This book took the excellent foundation of the first and expanded it and cemented this book as its own.

I’m honestly kind of frustrated with this review because all I really have is a lot of well deserved but somewhat vague praise.

I love the world building, it’s very original with the combination of noble houses who run this town, each of them controlled by magical people all vying against each other, a modern setting and a range of monsters lurking around the fringes of a tourist trap. I like the combination of both the dark danger hiding behind every corner and the bright, shiny exterior which is all welcoming and kitsch for the tourists. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, the pageantry with the lethal politics lurking just under the surface.

I love the protagonist Lila, with her endless love of bacon and her complicated relationship with the family. Her conflict about being both part of the Sinclair family and outside of it is excellent. Her conflict over whether she can trust the head of the family, whether she can really get invested in it and whether she can really establish any connections there. Her conflict is very real as she both wants to protect and help the family but still feels she needs to be ready to leave at any time and all of this is linked to her complicated memories of her mother who was both loyal to the Sinclairs – and died because of that loyalty. On top this we have her life as a thief, her habit of keeping her head low and hiding and now she’s very much thrust into the lime light, drawing lots of attention and being really uncomfortable about it. This past also comes with an experience of being poor – so even when in two minds about the Sinclairs, their wealth and the comfort she lives in now are not things she can step aside from. I like how well this is down, Lila never feels like she’s greedy or grasping – she feels exactly like what she is, a character who knows poverty and is unwilling to dismiss the security of wealth. She’s a character with a lot of interesting and very real conflicts about her.

The one element I didn’t like about her was her romance with Devon. It feels very forced – along with the whole “I can’t possibly fall in love with him for REASONS!” It’s like we have this whole excellent story and then someone’s looked up some checklist and announced “this needs a romance. A female protagonist must have a rocky romance. It is known. It is in the rules” so Devon and Lila became a thing – only not a thing because there has to be some barrier (Lila is reluctant… for… reasons).

Other romances in the book I liked, especially the romance between Felix and Deah. Not because I especially like the romance and Romeo and Juliet has been done so often, but I appreciated an attempt to make some members of the Draconi family redeemable (unfortunately the general characterisation of the bad guys is terribad people who are bad. Nuanced it is not but, at the same time, while they’re terribad they’re not necessarily cartoonishly so). Even better, while Deah is showed as redeemable and complex and not just one of the evil Draconi, she is also shown as such through avenues other than her relationship with Felix. Her love interest isn’t what makes her good or her avenue for redemption or anything like that.

I can’t say the same about Felix and Katia – I don’t think that the romance really added anything since Katia Already had the excellent conflict with Deah and the characterisation of her father (though, I have to say, I’m not entirely thrilled with Katia’s alcoholic father being presented as the ultimate source of all that is wrong in her life especially since we saw little about him other than being a drunk). Again, it felt like romantic conflict was squeezed in because it must be!

That said, the characterisation of the other characters largely worked. I wasn’t fond of the romance, but Katia and Deah both had powerful family conflicts that really worked for them. The Sinclair family had a number of excellent close bonds and we had some excellent past insight into a lot of the main characters’ history which worked nicely in making it all richer.

The plot itself is fun, albeit predictable. I think I knew both what was happening and who was doing it before we reached the half way point. Despite that, I’m not complaining because the details of the journey were still interesting, the character development excellent and the world building was nicely advanced as well. The action scenes were fun, excellently paced and exciting (Jennifer Estep is awesome at action scenes) as was the actual unfolding of the plot itself. It’s well written and fun, being predictable isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you may know the end of the path but that doesn’t mean walking down it isn’t still fun.

Minority-wise, Felix is one of the main characters in this series and he is Latino. He’s notable and definitely involved and really only behind Lila and Devon in involvement in the plot. Lila’s mentor/father figure, Mo is still present but is still kind of background. He does now have a prominent position in the family and he has had a history revealed that connects him more with the other characters – I’d like to see more of him than just the protagonist supporter. I’d also like to see more of Poppy, an Asian member of one of the other houses who only really had the briefest appearance.

I’d like to see more of Poppy because she’s also the only woman who Lila has an uncomplicated relationship with. There are several powerful and capable female characters in the series, but none of them really like each other. Lila is wary and untrusting of Claudia (and has the classic protagonist-snark-against-authority thing going) the head of Sinclaire house. She and Deah have obvious issues to work through and the whole rival houses thing is a barrier. And Katia had her own conflicts. I would like to see more Poppy so Lila can actually spend time with a woman she likes. I want to stress that all these other women aren’t terribad awful (so often a female protagonist will be surrounded by evil terror ladies) but they all have story reasons for… distance between them and Lila. Sadly, there are still no LGBT characters in the series.

I liked this book, but I knew I would. I was eager to pick it up the minute I saw it had been released and I wasn’t disappointed for one second. This book tells me this is going to be another series on my must read list – one I always look eagerly for and am quick to read when I get my hands on it.