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review 2019-02-13 11:30
"Iron and Magic - The Iron Covenant #1" by Ilona Andrews
Iron and Magic - Ilona Andrews


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 Curren's claws. Why would I want to read a book about 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:


  1. Make him guilty and damaged
  2. Give him something to protect from something worse than him
  3. 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.

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text 2019-02-11 22:50
Reading progress update: I've read 51%.
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene

The 1960s version of the Orient Express sounds drab and dreary. Sadly, it seems to have sapped the energy from the last chapter or so, which has definitely lost its sparkle. 


I'm hoping things get better in Istanbul.

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text 2019-02-10 22:46
Reading progress update: I've read 38%.
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene

This continues to be wonderful.


It's such a long time since I read this that I'd remembered some of the incidents as short stories, without associating them with this book. 


I suspect my (much, much) younger self also failed to work out what exactly our hero's aunt did for a living until much later in the book.


Apart from the plot, one shock in being taken back to 1960s England is the idea of currency restrictions. These days I can't carry more than €10,000 in cash when I travel to another country but I can get cash out of almost any ATM. The idea that back then Britain's economy was so weak that the government only allowed you to take small amounts out of the country is more than a little surprising. If we Brexit, I wonder how long it will be before those restrictions are back in place?

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text 2019-02-09 23:05
Reading progress update: I've read 10%.
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene

My wife and I have just started to listen to the audiobook version of this, read by Tim Pigott-Smith.


I had only the vaguest of memories of reading this in the late seventies after the movie with Maggie Smith came out. Maggie Smith was only thirty-eight at the time but was cast quite successfully as the septuagenarian aunt.


I'm happy to discover that the book is actually quite funny and Tim Pigott-Smith performs it perfectly.

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text 2019-02-09 17:25
Reading progress update: I've read 16%.
The Lost Man - Jane Harper

A very strong start to Jane Harper's third novel. It brings home how alien the remote parts of Australia are if, like me, you've grown up in a densely populated, mostly temperate part of the world. In this book, when two brothers are neighbours, their houses are a three-hour drive apart. Getting separated from your car can mean death from exposure in less than 24 hours. This is an attention-grabbing background for a novel that I think will be packed with tension and guilt.

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