When I read that my favorite fantasy author, Ilona Andrews, planned to self-publish a novella in time for Christmas, I did the happy dance. Then I learned that the protagonist of Magic Stars was Derek, an important and much-loved secondary character from the bestselling Kate Daniels series, and I started counting the days.
There was no chance of me saving this book for a holiday treat. I applied for and was lucky enough to receive an ARC, which arrived in my in-box just before 11pm one night. Suffice it to say I didn’t go early to bed 😉 .
It’s no criticism to say this book is not what I was expecting. It was much, much more.
Here’s the story blurb from Ilona Andrews’ website (click here for link):
Scarred, solitary Derek Gaunt has separated from his Pack, and is truly a lone wolf. With no family he answers to no one; but is fiercely loyal to a chosen few. So, when several of those close to him are murdered, he’ll stop at nothing to hunt their killer through the magic-drenched streets of Atlanta.
Never one to be left on the sidelines, equally determined—some might say stubborn—Julie Lennart-Olsen soon joins in his pursuit; and what began as revenge turns into a race to save the city. Their search pits them against powers they never imagined and magic so old, it predates history. It may cost Derek his life, but there are things for which even he would risk everything.
I’d already read snippets on the author’s blog, so I knew the story would likely be toward the darker end of their spectrum. The same elements are present in all their stories, but the blend is subtly different in each series. I think of the Kate Daniels series as the baseline – fabulous world-building; strong community; smart, sympathetic characters; kick-ass action involving magical mcguffins and mythical monsters; snappy dialogue and dark humor covering deep and powerful emotional drive. The Innkeeper books (Clean Sweep, Sweep In Peace) are a touch lighter, Hidden Legacy (Burn for Me) more romantic, the Edge stories more fantastic. Magic Stars was even darker than I was expecting, because the story mix had less of the humor that generally leavens the blackest moments in their writing.
I don’t think it was an accident. The protagonist of Magic Stars is Derek, a twenty year-old shapeshifter wolf with a backstory so grim that his natural charm and humor have been hammered out of him. He killed his father, but not in time to save his mother or sisters from torture, rape and death. He was rescued and rehabilitated by Curran, the Beast Lord, and became a soldier and spy for Curran’s Pack, using his looks and charisma to gather information, until that career ended in capture and terrible torture that scarred him physically and mentally. Now Curran and Kate have separated from the Pack and Derek has joined them. In his own words:
He was the Grey Wolf in the City; the one who came and found you if you fucked up and hurt the wrong people. He helped those who needed it. He stood between those who were hurt and those who did the hurting. He removed threats, and soon his name would be enough of a deterrent. This new thing, it felt right. His face matched him now, matched how he felt and matched the role he chose. Jokes didn’t.
On the surface, the plot of Magic Stars is a classic Kate Daniels world story – Derek and Julie, Kate and Curran’s sixteen year-old adopted daughter, must retrieve the magic rocks, defeat the bad guy and assorted magical, mythical creatures, and save the city. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I say there’s a mystery, action, violence, rising tension and a satisfying conclusion.
That’s what I was looking forward to, though it came with a heap more grim than I’d anticipated. What transformed the book into all kinds of wonderful was the relationship between Derek and Julie. It was so perfectly written, it made me cry. When I’d finished, I wanted to fire off a whole salvo of squee cannons in celebration.
Derek isn’t just damaged, he’s hanging on by a thread. He’s a very good guy who’s dragged himself back from the abyss twice and has created a new role that makes good use of the darkness in himself. He has no expectation of happiness, and the risk of his descent into violence and madness is clearly drawn and ever-present.
Derek deserves salvation, and he’s not going to find it in the selfless love of some sweet young thing. What he needs, and what he starts to find in this story, is an equal; a sidekick-dash-soul-mate who’ll fight alongside him, kick his ass and tell him to lighten up. Julie grew up on the streets. She’s smart, funny and feisty, but like Derek, she carries the scars of her early life and she’s old beyond her years. As they work together to solve the mystery, you see that these two characters understand each other more deeply than many people who have lived a lifetime together.
By the end of the story you know it’s not so much that Derek and Julie love each other as that they belong to one another, fundamentally and irrevocably. They share a bond of commitment, trust and understanding that would preclude either of them finding romantic love with anyone else. It’s equally obvious that they’re facing bigger obstacles than the age gap. They have a long, long way to go if they are to have any chance of finding happiness together.
The burning question is, what will they do next, and will we get to share their journey?
According to Ilona Andrews’ blog, it’s not yet decided whether there will be a sequel or a series, but as the book is subtitled Grey Wolf Book 1, I really hope there will be. Kate and Curran’s story is drawing to a natural conclusion and these characters are the natural heirs of that story world. There’s the potential for another unbelievably good series. Julie is an old head on young shoulders, but she’s barely scratched the surface of her abilities. Derek is deeply damaged. Both characters have big arcs ahead of them, and the looming presence of Roland, Kate’s father and the Big Bad of the Kate Daniels universe, promises trouble and to spare.
If there was a pre-order button for the next book in Derek and Julie’s story, or better still, for a whole series, I’d have clicked and paid on the spot. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll get the chance.