When Karina Halle’s Artists Trilogy splashed on the scene earlier this year, it made its mark for several reasons: the con-artist heroine, the gamma-turned-sociopath anti-hero, and a romantic suspense saga that is always on the move, never lets up, and constantly keeps us guessing. But above all, it will be known for the love triangle that goes beyond a mere device; it drives the story.
The Artists Trilogy is actually a four-book series (counting prequel novella On Every Street), which goes back and forth between the two heroes from book to book, an unusual departure from the traditional structure of romance. There’s Javier, the right hand of a crime magnate Ellie meets as she embarks on a life of revenge against the man who scarred her for life. Surprisingly, Javier is the one who causes Ellie to turn her life around before she ever really gets off course, inspiring her to yearn for something she’s never had—a life of love, and stability, at least as much as that’s possible in the lair of a drug lord. Javier says all the right things, and he’s just about got everyone under his spell…until he screws everyone all over.
This is what Halle does so well. Nothing is expected, which makes her world all the more unpredictable and scary. Six years later, a hardened Ellie has licked her wounds and turned into the kind of criminal who would make her parents proud. And for the first time, she tries going back home. She immediately runs into Camden McQueen, a tattooed sex god who’s definitely grown up from her gangly gothic best friend in high school. Things didn’t end well between them then and Ellie isn’t really interested in any attachments now, but Cam is still the sensitive, thoughtful guy she remembers and Ellie’s humanity can’t help coming to the forefront when she’s around him. When a plan to con him out of thousands goes awry, she’s suddenly in Cam’s debt, and what follows is a beautifully spun love story in Sins and Needles. It’s a story of first love reunited, redemptive and hopeful.
But that’s only half the story. Just as Ellie and Cam are prepared to take their happily ever after and disappear forever, Javier returns and kidnaps Ellie in exchange for Cam’s life. If Javier hasn’t shown his true colors before, he does now. Again in the company of a man she once loved, Ellie has doubts. Will she ever see Cam again? Is she as a con artist destined for the lowest common denominator in men? And most dangerous of all, will she fall back into Javier’s trap?
The snake and the bear, the man of stealth and lies, the man of soul and strength.
Both men who had a stake in my heart at some point in the game.
This ever-changing game.
Shooting Scars is a perplexing slip backwards in character development for Ellie, a hard journey where it all muddies. The characters’ actions are mostly understandable, if not likeable. Ellie, who has never had anyone fight for her, believes Cam is lost to her forever and falls back into a pattern with Javier. This is the triangle at its worst, where even if we understand how she ends up returning to a relationship of sorts with Javier, it turns the stomach to see what Ellie’s given up hope in—something higher, something purer, something greater with Cam. She’ll settle for Javier because he’s there and he’s all she’ll ever really deserve. And when Cam returns and stumbles right upon them, it hurts. It’s hard to see that Ellie had given up on them, it’s hard to see Javier so smug, it’s devastating to know that she still feels enough for Javier to respond to him in some way. This is where they all have to make their way back from in the final leg in the journey, Bold Tricks.
There’s an interesting character study here where all three of them are forced together to fight a greater enemy, while within they battle demons among them to which they’ll either have to overcome or succumb. Being thrown together makes for uncomfortable small talk and mealtimes, but in a way it’s good that they’re forced to deal with it head-on. Immediately Ellie understands what her doubt has cost her and Cam, but the damage is done. If they even make it out alive, can they make it back to each other?
Halle really succeeds in making sure Javier stays bad. In fact, he gets worse and worse. He’s a liar, a cheater, a killer. He never does anything without a hidden agenda, and he’ll stomp on anyone to get to the top. Ellie isn’t immune from that, which is the only reason why it’s so frustrating that she continually has a soft spot for him. And her choice to fall into bed with Javier again, even if some part of her believes she’s keeping her body, heart, and mind separate, takes an immeasurable toll on Ellie and Cam’s relationship and our faith in her. Her decision to do so after she knows the truth that can be found in a loving union with a good, committed man is what’s so hard to swallow.
“And why did you come down here?”
“Why do you think?” Camden asked, his voice clipped.
“To get the girl?” She smiled at the two of us. “Which would be very romantic if it weren’t for my brother sitting right here, correct?”
Romantic. I looked at Camden, feeling my face growing hot. I did find it romantic, actually. I found it sexy. I found it brave, honest, noble, and borderline crazy. I found Camden’s devotion to me filled my soul with a warmth I’d never, ever felt before. Just like he had when we were bullied teens, he understood me in ways no one else did.
But how could it be romantic when I could see the hurt and anger in his eyes, his disappointment in me and what I’d done to him? How easily I tossed away his accountability? This wasn’t romantic anymore; this was tragic, and it was all my fault.
I didn’t need to say that to Violetta though. She only stubbed out her smoke on the table and said, “Oh, but I forgot, you aren’t with him.”
Camden looked at me sharply.
She went on, “And you’re not with my brother. And yet here you all are. Together.”
Somehow, Cam and Ellie do come back. Does the love triangle go too far to the detriment of the characters? Perhaps. That’s always the risk with this device in a story. And even though it’s clear where the triangle in the Artists Trilogy was always headed, like the series as a whole, it’s a bumpy ride getting there.
Tiffany Tyer is a writer and editor who loves reading and analyzing all things romance. She also works as a vocalist, a tutor, and a non-profit ministry assistant, and she loves it that way. Her book reviews can be found at Happy Endings Reviews, a blog she co-founded.