Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book surprised me. It's a spin-off of the Kate Daniels urban fantasy series, and features as its protagonists Hugh d'Ambray, one of the foremost bad guys from those books. To make Hugh the star of this book, and make him sympathetic enough to find readers (he's definitely not a classical hero; he's more of an anti-hero here, and his assholish side still exists) takes writers of some skill. The Andrews husband-and-wife writing team pulls this off, and gives us a lean, mean, fast-moving machine of story to boot.
(As a matter of fact, I liked this story better than the final book in the Kate Daniels series, Magic Triumphs. That book felt a bit bloated and overstuffed when I was reading it--which, in fairness, it could hardly escape being, since it was winding up the series--and now it seems even more so compared to this.)
The characterizations are first-rate, especially Hugh's and Elara Harper, the woman he enters into a marriage of convenience with to provide a home for his soldiers, the Iron Dogs. We find out a lot about Hugh's past, and how he was abused and manipulated by Roland (AKA the wizard Nimrod, the Big Bad of the Kate Daniels universe) for decades. He undergoes a nice character arc in this book, punishing himself for and coming to terms with his past, and makes a final break with Roland at the end. This isn't to say he is transformed into a Good Guy. Far from it. Hugh d'Ambray is a complex character with many shades of gray. But at the end of this book he stands on his own, and the choices he makes going forward will be his, for good or bad.
Elara Harper, the witch/White Lady/something else ancient and powerful and a bit Lovecraftian, is just as well drawn, if more mysterious. Presumably we will find out more about her in subsequent books. Regardless, she is a fine match for Hugh, taking none of his or anyone else's shit. Their relationship changes from hate to not-quite-love but moving in that direction, and their dialogue and banter is funny, snarky, and delicious. The POVs in this book are split between Hugh and Elara, and the division of scenes is excellent and well-balanced, moving the story along and revealing plot and character quite nicely.
The worldbuilding casts an interesting new light on this universe, in that this setting is more on the magic side of the magic/tech struggle. A slowly eroding modern civilization with monsters, and what it takes to stand against them. In this case, it takes Hugh d'Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, and I can't wait for his further adventures.
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