James is crawling into a booze bottle and trying to forget a lot… especially his ex and his old job working for the Facility. He is not happy to return - but to help his sister he sees no choice
And when he gets there, he’s shocked to see how much this Facility for developing the magically gifted has changed, and not for the better. The new subjects have “sponsors” who expect to take possession of their targets, the deadlines for being up to standard are impossibly short and the penalties for not meeting them are lethal
With five of the greatest magical talents ever known now being trained, it’s James’s job to ensure they meet their potential - and survive.
We have some really excellent concepts with this book - four distinct schools of magic with so much detail and world building that is really detailed and excellently written. I really do love the implications of each of the separate branches - especially the terrifying possessing demons and the entities that give power at such a terrible price
I’ve also seen very very few books truly give the sense of magic as dangerous - I mean I think we can really feel how dangerous and terrifying these powerful magic users are and how utterly terrifying they would be if they were out of control, how much there is a very real terror of the power and the entities around these magical young people.
Then you’ve got the practicality of running these facility. The huge expence of the training, the facilities, the staff everything all costs money - and who is paying for that? We can see the need for them to get money from somewhere. Through that lens then maybe, just maybe, the involvement of private companies and the military makes sense.
Together this gives such a real foundation for the facility and the story - yes there’s evil and yes there’s a whole lot of prejudice and Miriam is a terrible terrible person - but we can see why it makes sense to begin with, why a sensible and not totally evil person would make the compromises they do - to create this deeply flawed facility and why decent people would want to get involved. We can even see why people would advocate killing these young people - because they are terrifyingly dangerous individuals, some of them more than a little suicidal themselves
It also gives us a reason why James Martin wants to get involved - we have the hook of trying to help his sister, the underlying importance of what they’re doing, helping these 5 extremely powerful and dangerous young people learn how to control their powers is a definite need - before fully developing into saving them. I like how these underlying causes form the foundation of the plot and motivation and let James’s motivations develop more naturally. He doesn’t come in with the mentality of “burn it all down” but learns to become invested in all of his students, values them and increasingly sees the flaws in the facility driven by resources, driven by the desire of various organisations to exploit them and driven by Miriam’s prejudice both against magic users and against James as a gay man.
I love the characters here - each individual magic user with their own struggles: whether it’s terror of the demons possessing them, desperately trying to control their emotions which trigger their powers, learning coping mechanisms or just being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of their powers. Some just need to learn routines and draw an accord with the demon inside them while others are having difficult struggles with serious mental health issues that compound the problem, others have also turned to substance misuse. What I like is how the facility really serves as an excellent mirror to our own institutions and their failure to take into account problems people are having when trying to achieve their purpose - or the outright evil manipulation of the facts to railroad these youngsters. Chris has been incarcerated into the Facility with entirely false information about his lack of control in order to use him and, effectively, sell him. Camila is considered to have anger and control issues but they want her to control that without addressing her bipolar disorder: an impossible task and really reflects how often we fail to deal with all the issues that may affect someone’s life and instead just look at one - and how impossible this is.
If there’s one flaw in this book’s excellent depiction of the struggles these people have, it’s with both Isaiah and James’s substance misuse. Isaiah resorted to drugs to try and control his powers while James, after his sister’s issues and the death of his last lover resorted to alcohol. While James undergoes a detox (which is dangerous - alcohol withdrawal is not to be trifled with) both of them come through the struggle relatively easily and with little long term consequences even as we do see the underlying issues continue to cause them difficulty
On part I also liked a lot was that Ning Chiu was valued not just for her magic but because she’s an extremely talented linguist and highly sought after. Her magic is almost a side issue to that - a distraction from what she is actually valued for. In many books if someone has woo-woo then that tends to overwhelm every other aspect of their characters - so I appreciate the twist
It’s also very nicely diverse, Ning Chiu is Chinese, Chris a Canadian Black man, Camilla a latina woman with mental health issues, Annabelle a white woman from a religious background (and has deep conflicts with that and the demons possessing her) and Isaiah is a man of colour and a gay man - as is James. I was originally a little shaky about James and Isaiah’s relationship since there are definite ethical issues in any kind of sexual relationship between teacher and student - and James certainly resists his attraction on that basis. But these are adults and it’s quickly clear we’re not dealing with anything resembling a teacher/student relationship, dynamic or even environment. To hold onto those ethics while the Facility is actively pushing them towards death would seem odd - and James’s resistance before acceptance of his attraction coincides nicely on the same time line as him going from reluctant employee of the facility through to active participant in the conspiracy with his students to save them. I like the balance of that and how their relationship forms a parallel to the change of focus of the characters
They’re also very hot together while, at the same time, neither of them being described as classically perfect: no lingering descriptions of swelling muscles and perfect abs which is nicely refreshing
The character focus is so excellently done that . One of my concerns about the end of this book and where we go from here is my wonder how they will stay together - what motivation is there for these characters to stay together, especially since at least a couple of them have express motivations to go elsewhere. And that is a concern for me because they ARE so excellent together, they work together as friends, as a family to such a degrees that I kind of lost their other motivations (I am utterly uninvested in James’s troubled sister or whether Chris’s family is ok or Annabelle’s coven because I care more about these characters together than I do about any side motivation). And this is a very very good thing. Especially since I’m even more focused on this than I am the world building - and the world building is good and anyone who has read my reviews knows I love some good world building: but these characters have hooked me above all else.