I didn't want to read this book.
I mean, what would be the point? Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers is a violent, amoral, narcissistic killer who, in the previous Kate Daniels books, I'd have happily seen cleaved by Kate's sword or dangling in pieces from Curran's claws. Why would I want to read a book by a man like that?
Well, because Ilona Andrews wrote it and because I'd been told that it was a crossover book that I should read before the tenth Kate Daniels book. So it was the anally retentive pedant part of me that picked up this book, not my inner fanboy, but it's the fanboy who's writing the review.
"Iron and Magic" is surprisingly good.
The tone is darker, more muscular and more rage-filled than the Daniels books. Kate's I-have-to-save-my-people-to-prove-to-myself-that-I-have-not-become-my-father motivation is replaced by the sceptical pragmatism of the two main characters, Hugh and Elara, who are motivated by the knowledge that To-survive-I-have-to-make-a-deal-with-these-unpleasant-untrustworthy-people-that-I-may-have-to-kill-or-who-may-kill-me.
Most of my enjoyment from the book came from the same sources as the Daniels books: strong, complex, slightly unpredictable characters locked in a frenemy conflict, a twisty plot filled with new threats, excellent battle scenes, the ability to make me care about who lives and who dies and a constant pulse of well-timed humour.
A smaller part of me was applauding the skill with which Ilona Andrews engaged me in caring about Hugh d’Ambray's fate.
It was an object lesson in how to turn a figure of hate into a (sort of) hero in three easy steps:
Make him guilty and damaged
Give him something to protect from something worse than him
See him through the eyes of another monster
Make him guilty and damaged
The humanisation of Hugh d'Ambray began with showing him responding to the loss of his immortality and his exile from Roland by trying to drink himself to death. He's dragged from this by the senior members of the Iron Dogs. the force that Hugh built to prosecute Roland's will, who need his leadership to prevent them from being wiped out by Roland's vampires. The loyalty shown to Hugh casts him in a less selfish light and the vampires provide a credible and dislikable threat.
The guilt comes more slowly, but constantly, as Hugh starts to realise how he failed to question Roland's commands, no matter how brutal. Hugh is still a violent, dangerous man who pursues his self-interest without hesitation or regret but now that he's no longer doing Roland's will, he's forced to define the "we" that his self-interest covers and to consider the cost of his actions.
Give him something to protect from something worse than him.
Ilona Andrews knows that you make violence honourable by using it to protect the innocent. The Iron Dogs could never be seen as innocents so we get a community made up families of hippyish witches, holed up in a castle, surrounded by hostile or indifferent neighbours and under threat from the same vampires hunting the Iron Dogs. The threat is then amplified as a previously unknown force of magic-using warriors start to annihilate the surrounding villages. Now Hugh's violence is turned from the sword of a tyrant to a shield for the innocent.
The new bad guys are an inspired addition. Suddenly, Roland's people aren't the top of the food chain any more and the new Big Bad is alien, inscrutable and deeply scary. I hope they're part of the crossover to the Kate Daniels storyline.
See him through the eyes of another monster.
I think the master stroke of the book is the creation of Elara Harper, The White Lady and leader/protector of the community of witches. Elara is more dangerous and less human than the now weakened and mortal Hugh. She takes an instant dislike to him (which speaks well of her judgement) but is willing to use him and his Iron Dogs to defend her community.
Ilona Andrews version of witches has never felt wholesome. There has always been a whiff of rot and a twitch of insanity associated with them. Elara and her community carry a greater sense of threat with them than that. They seem... slippery. Elara certainly sees herself as a monster and so her view of Hugh is unique.
In a reversal of the development of the relationship between Kate and Curren, the relationship between Elara and Hugh starts with a marriage. True, it's a marriage of convenience to convince the world that these two, who each has a history of betraying allies, really are united. This device allowed intimacy without empathy between the two players and provided a framework for a "Taming Of The Shrew" theme with Elara and Hugh taking turns at being the shrew. Their mutual antagonism is credible as well as being fun. It gave a space for Hugh to continue on the path to humanity by expanding his definition of "we" to include Elara and her people and Elara's slow, reluctant growth of Elara's regard for Hugh made him more engaging.
Then there was the sex scene
Am I the only reader who'd like Audible to have a Skip-To-End-Of-Overlong-Sex-Scene button?
This book was going well. Then we had the sex scene that was almost a chapter long, almost all of which was cinematic i.e with a strong emphasis on what the sex looked like rather than what was going on on the heads of either participant. The fight scenes told me more about the hopes, regrets, excitements and fears of the combatants than this description of sweaty gymnastics provided on what was going on in Elara's or Hugh's head.
I could see that it moved the relationship between the two of them on and did so just before the big everything-hinges-on-this fight but I really didn't need a whole chapter on this.
I recommend the audiobook version.
Steve West does an excellent job as the narrator, His slightly rough, slightly Northern, very English voice for Hugh is inspired. He does a credible job with Elara and I felt like cheering when he used a Hispanic accent for the leaders of the Bouda Clan.
Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an extract.