Magic Burns by “Ilona Andrews” (a pair of writers) is surprisingly well-written. It starts out fast — a phone call from a fellow mercenary wakes our herione from her lonely bed. He needs help on a tricky rush job. After agressively negotiating her cut, we jump ahead to where she’s dodging fireballs as her friend sneaks up on the bad guy. And wouldn’t you know it — just as they conk him out, the city-wide magic flare-up fades back down. Wonderful. Right away we know who she is and learn that magic flare-ups are going to be a problem. Next we get a slick info-dump. A bystander sees our hero’s Order badge and says “my kid wants to join them, but how are they different from the Merc’s Guild?”. Very nice. Oh, right — both guilds handle monster problems, but The Order does it with extreme prejudice. She works for both, so that might be fun.
Non-sucky writing continues through-out the book. That long description of a random cave — it will be important later. Her werewolf and vampire friends arguing during the walk to the park — we learn something about how those groups interact in this world. This may be the only book of this type without a page of “banter” about who loves coffee more. But before more praise of the writing, the checklist:
A point agianst: she’s single with no family or close friends. But during the book she adopts an orphan and gets close to a work friend, sharing their deep secrets and getting werewolf relationship advice. So that’s fine. Then more bad: she’s comfortable with her appearance and is also pretty confident, probably due to her skill in “martial arts killing machine”. Yeah — it’s one of those books. But to, uh, humanize her?, she’s super horny, nearly leaping at every man she sees (this is a reverse spoiler for me — now I know she hasn’t had sex at all for the entire first book. This is the second book). As we know, women objectifying men is fine.
Another point against: she’s not a weird magical 1/2-thing, but she makes up for it with Dark Secrets! Who taught her deadly illegal magic? And why can she control the undead? She might be 1/2-something.
The world’s backstory is where it gets good. The magical world is public, mostly since decades of high-magic waves have wrecked parts of the city, messing-up tech during the peaks. Crossbows are the go-to weapon and transportation is either horses or dual gas&magic cars. Werewolves have sub-tribes for various species (were-hyenas) and the “alpha” is just a strong guy who’s a decent politician. Witch covens fall into registered and unregistered. Vampires are two-part things. Humans can be turned into mindless killing undead, known as vampires. But real vampires are this other race who stay at home while puppeting the mindless ex-human vampires around town. And everyone seems to be using Fomorians now. They’re public domain “real” Irish monsters (and were even in the Dungeons&Dragons Monster Manual from the 1980’s). Those are the bad guys here.
Hitting the genre straight on, she solves plenty of problems by merely talking. Her first case is all talk. Her ex-boyfriend wants to marry the werewolf leader’s ex-girlfriend, and they want her to get the leader’s permission. After some brawling, she hears his side, they about ex’s, and eventually he comes around. That’s exactly how to do it — “the main plot is trying to murder me, but I have to talk about that wedding”. The book has a sexy, mysterious who’s-side-is-he-on guy. After the usual taunts and sexual tension, she gets him to admit he’s only groping her out of reflex. He actually like farm girls and is very lonely in general, and she convinces him that doing a good deed for some sexy witches will help him with both. Then we find out they were on the same side of the main plot, but his macho lone-wolf attitude kept him from realizing that. She’s practically a monster therapist.
She even pretty much solves the main case by talking. She’s the one’s able to meet with everyone and figure out the whole picture. Sure, she’s randomly attacked and solves a few problems by fighting, but it’s not too silly (well, sometimes it is, like when she’s flung across the room by an ogre-swipe and somehow counters by cutting out its liver. But what are you going to do?)
The writing and plotting is decent enough that one quibble stands out. Early on she’s looking for a little girl’s mother, which includes visiting her old house (a clean one, apparently proving she’s a good mom). A chapter later she awkwardly explains that she left a note for the mom while she was there. It’s as if the authors realized they messed-up but weren’t allowed to go back and fix the old chapter.
All-in-all this is a great book in the genre. It’s got enough romance, enough relationships, that strong “this is a job for a woman” vibe. My only worry is it may be a bit too well-written. Readers of these like two pages of the bad-guy calling her a stupid C, then two more pages of him yelling “how is a lowly woman beating me!”. Here the badguy only calls her a B the minimum required number of times (twice).