Fri
Feb 28 2014 9:30am

Kiss Me Kate: Ilona Andrews’s Magic Bites

Magic Bites is the first book in Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series and, well, I should probably start this review by making the same observation I always wind up making about volume one of a series, which is that the first book inevitably has to do a whole lot of heavy lifting. Magic Bites is set in an alternative Atlanta, some time after a magical apocalypse. The basic premise is that technology and magic sort of compete for control of the world, and one or the other will be “up” at a time, at semi-regular intervals. During tech, magic is unpredictable, during magic, tech is unpredictable. Hilarity ensues. And by “hilarity” I of course mean “a series of grisly murders.”

Oh, as always, I should say that there are spoilers coming. I mean technically the “grisly murders” thing was a spoiler but…seriously when aren't there grisly murders?

Our heroine is a mercenary with unknown and mysterious supernatural heritage. At the start of the book, she discovers that her guardian has been brutally killed which, given that he was a member of some kind of superpowered magic warrior cult, suggests that there's something very powerful and very nasty running around. She wangles her way onto the investigation (there's some indication that the superpowered magic warrior cult is deliberately using her as a distraction), and proceeds to kick over every pile of rocks she can find until something shows up.

Books that straddle the border between supernatural and mystery always have some delicate work to do, because part of the pleasure of reading a mystery (for many people) is playing along at home, and playing along at home requires a decent understanding of how the world works, because otherwise you have no way at all of figuring out what kind of creature could—say—take out a superpowered monster hunter and a vampire without anybody having time to react. Magic Bites deals with this problem by nailing its flag very firmly to the “thriller not mystery” mast. Kate is a mercenary (she's in a guild and everything). She doesn't solve crimes, she fights monsters. She even states explicitly at the start of the book that her way of dealing with any kind of mystery is to cause so much trouble that the guilty party tries to kill her. You clearly aren't supposed to be able to work out who the villain is from any actual in-world clues, which is good because expecting your reader to be able to predict that a yellow line on a magic detection scan must mean a fusion of necromantic and animal magic would be a bit of a big ask.

You can work out who the villain is from metatextual clues, the tried and tested “which character has no other reason to be in it” method works pretty well, for example. But this works in the book's favour, because it allows the reader to play along with the mystery without requiring a detailed knowledge of the world, and without making the protagonist look like an idiot when she fails to spot the things the reader spots. That said, metatextual clues can also get you into a bit of a bind with this book, because the most obvious candidate for has-to-be-the-villain-hood, well, isn't.

About 12% into the book (I read this one on Kindle), Kate meets the charming Dr. Crest. He is immediately interested in her, and they go on a couple of dates. By about a third of the way into the book I had reached the conclusion that either this series was going to break all the traditions of the genre and have a primary romantic interest with no supernatural powers whatsoever, or that this guy was going to turn out to be the villain. Once Kate met the hot alpha lion-shifter, I was damned near certain Crest was going to turn out to be the villain. It was only when it turned out that the villain was some kind of creepy serial seducer with a thing for supernaturally powerful women, which led to Kate also deciding that Crest might be the villain, that I started to entertain the notion that he might not be (using the, once again highly reliable, “how much book is left?” technique).

I've got to confess to feeling a little bit sorry for Crest, because in many ways I liked him a lot more than the actual romantic interest (whose name, confusingly, also begins with a C – I mean it is confusing that his name also begins with a C, his name isn't “Confusingly”, which is kind of a shame). The actual romantic interest is Curran, the Beast Lord of the local shifter Pack. Curran is…not really my type. It's partly just that I don't particularly get the cat-shifter thing. I mean, check out his profile over on the official website. I mean, maybe I just watched too much of the BBC Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, but…I'm sorry, but it'd be like boinking Aslan. And even if he was voiced by Liam Neeson that would be weird.

Magic Bites probably has the lowest-level romantic elements of any book with strong romantic elements that I've met so far. I almost felt like I was just assuming that Kate and Curran would be attracted to each other out of sheer genre convention. This is probably quite a nooby observation, but most of their interactions seem to hover in an indistinct space between indifferent, antagonistic and cordial and while I get that this can be a code for “desperately want to jump each other's bones” here it just felt more like they…well…didn't feel that strongly about each other. I should probably stress that I don't actually think this is a flaw in the book per se, just another occupational hazard with reviewing the first book of a series. The intent in Magic Bites seems quite clearly to be for Kate and Curran's relationship to develop at a slow pace over several books, rather than for them to go from zero to babies in 275 pages.

Indeed, one of the things I really liked about the book was the fact that it was clearly playing the long game. The whole thing is a well judged admixture of satisfyingly resolved short-term plot and tiny glimpses of long-term story building. So on the one hand we get a complete mystery/adventure arc in which somebody is murdered, their murderer is discovered and then defeated, all of which plays out in a pacey, page-turning frontstory. But on the other hand we have Kate and Curran's relationship, Kate's mysterious supernatural heritage, the conflict between the People and the Shifters and the various flashes of worldbuilding all of which lay the groundwork for plotlines which I'd expect to take three or four books to properly resolve.

Overall I really liked Magic Bites, it moves along at a good pace and hints at a much more detailed and intricate story to come. I had a couple of minor niggles with the plot (although the villain was interesting from a supernatural/mythological perspective he was also ultimately another variation on “misogynistic serial rapist/murderer” and I've seen a lot of misogynistic serial rapists/murderers over the years) but I'm very keen to look at the second book. Kate clearly has a lot to unpack, and Magic Bites only seems to scratch the surface of her character, and the same seems to be true of the world.

Speaking of the world, I was really pleased with the way the book just dropped you into the setting and let you piece things together for yourself. It's sort of deliberately confusing: “Okay, so vampires are ugly in this universe? And people other people control them like they're using the possession spell in Dungeon Keeper? Guns don't work with magic up but phones do? There's words of power? How long has magic been around exactly?” but that worked for me. Poking around Goodreads, I can see that this in media res approach was kind of a dealbreaker for some people, but I found it actually helped with my sense of immersion. I find that nothing draws attention to the artificiality of a setting faster than having characters who purportedly live in that setting take time out to explain things which, to them, would be perfectly everyday.

I wonder, to some extent, if this isn't a question of familiarity with the subgenre. For example, there's a scene early on where Kate is left a number of Words of Power by her late guardian. Being well used to weird fiction I was immediately able to look at that and go “okay, so one of the things that's going on in this setting is some kind of Language of Creation/Enochian/Words of God setup, cool” but I can easily imagine another reader looking at the same scene and going “hang on, what the crap just happened there?” Same with the vampires—in the very first chapter we encounter a vampire, and it's this scuttling mindless thing, and somebody speaks through it even after it's had its throat ripped open. To me that was fairly transparent (pre-Stokerian folkloric vamps, controlled by some kind of necromancers) but some readers seem to have found the event so confusing that it shook them out of the story. Obviously this is one of those things where mileage varies massively between readers, but speaking personally I really appreciated the lighter touch the book took with its exposition.

Overall, Magic Bites is pacey, well structured and just plain fun (if a bit—okay a lot—violent in places). It is very clearly the first book in a series, and read as a standalone there's a lot that just doesn't get resolved. On the other hand I suspect that it's one of those series that gets better the deeper you get into it, so it will probably repay the investment.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading Magic Bites:

Accusing somebody of being a serial killer can put real strain on a new relationship. Magic swords need to be fed. When somebody you barely know asks you to read an article about an obscure supernatural being for no apparent reason, shoot them on principle.

 


Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.

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20 comments
pamelia
1. pamelia
Totally agree with your review! This book is one of my classic examples (along with the first Dresden book by Jim Butcher) of a pretty darn good, but somehow not fantastic book that kicks off an AWESOME series.
I think this one definitely has some pacing problems and just doesn't work as well as the other books in the series, but once you get into the series, hold onto your hat!
Regarding Kate and Curran, they have one of my favorite book romances in that they did indeed have a slow build as they really didn't like each other in the beginning, but their love story builds gradually on a foundation of mutual admiration, humor, sexytimes and lots of action.
I just started the most recent book in this series yesterday evening and am currently at my desk at work chafing at my inability to get back to it. Darn work.
I'm curious as to whether you've read "Clean Sweep" by the Ilona Andrews team. I read that last week and loved it. It's a really cool little book with a new spin on a mix of sci-fi and fantasy.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
@Pamelia, I think the Jim Butcher example is the best one of an okay book that began an incredible series. I liked Magic Bites more than the first Butcher, actually, but I agree it is getting better. I'm not up-to-date on the series, though. I really liked Gunmetal Magic (w/Andrea as the lead, I think?)
Brianne Sherwood
3. bri_in_nj
I think this series definetly builds and gets better and better. I think all the books were good, but we learn so much more about Kate as the series continues and she grows so much as she is put into different situations. She had believed some things for her whole life, and as a result of her experiences, some of those beliefs change (in a good, she is growing kind of way) and make her so interesting. There are also always many new twists and turns to the world they live in, too.
Kareni
4. Kareni
I read this book years ago and have forgotten the fine details; however, you've whetted my appetite for a re-read. I have to admit you made me chuckle with your line "... go from zero to babies in 275 pages."
pamelia
5. Tierney
PLEASE, please, please, please, please- read the second and third books
they do INDEED got SO much better by leaps and bounds with every additional novel.
Carmen Pinzon
6. bungluna
This and the Dresden files are clear examples of well planned series. They both have story arcs that are developed carefully over several books.

I did not like the first Kate book very well, though I really enjoyed the world. I didn't cotton onto Curran being the future romantic interest, though he did seem a possible for a triangle, since those have been sooo popular. I'm glad I was wrong about the triangle.

On this one, several things didn't work for me, but the world building was fantastic, imo. It allowed me to discover it slowly. I grew addicted to the series over time to the point that now I read them as soon as they come out.
pamelia
7. Malin
So glad you finally got round to reviewing this one! What all the other said - you really want to stick with this series. The authors themselves tend to recommend people start with the second book and go back and read book 1 if they actually like the series, as Magic Bites is their very first book, and they admit that it's quite rough. I adore their writing, and pretty much think everything else they've written is better. Hence, if you liked this, you will probably enjoy the others even more.

Also, both Ilona and Gordon have said in interviews that Curran in his human form pretty much looks like Chris Hemsworth (in the Thor movies). I'd have NO problem boinking Aslan if he looked like Thor.
Estara Swanberg
8. Estara
Right on the head of the nail. I wonder if the Andrews actually were planning to have Curran be the romantic partner at that time - I read it as significant other - but whether it would be romantic or main thorn-in-her-side I wasn't sure (although that intro line when they meet in Unicorn Lane would have been wasted then).

There definitely was awareness on both sides of the other as someone who could turn into a major headache - and therefore someone to watch.

And Kate wasn't open to anything else, which her doctor date nicely showed.

These days the Andrews aren't so happy with the first book, they usually recommend starting with the second one. On my rereads I thought it's a great illustration of how far Kate comes.

There will always be a lot of violence in the books, but then the world is quite violent and the overarching plot makes it necessary to remain badass, otherwise Kate & Co. would be toast.

But then I also read from a sf&f plus romance reader background.
Carmen Pinzon
9. bungluna
I'm curious about one thing. I was always confused as to why Kate felt so guilty about accusing Crest of being the baddie. I didn't read it as her fault. Anyone have an explanation of this?
pamelia
10. Divya S
@bungluna

You know, I've always wondered the same thing. I think it's because Kate's the type of person that blames herself for every bad mistake (even if it isn't her fault).
Carmen Pinzon
11. bungluna
She does have an overdeveloped sense of responsability.
pamelia
12. Lisa F
LOVE this series. A friend recommended the books to me, so I fnally picked up a copy of Magic Bites. Came to the series with the first four books already out, so I binge read them. I didn't really experience the 'first book' issue, because I immediately read the next three in succession. I wait, not-so-patiently, for each new book in the series and in between releases, I read the entire Edge series. Love, love, love the Andrews' work!
AmyM
13. AmyM
I aboslutely love this series. I, too, picked it up when there was about 4 books released so I didn't have any issues with the first book because I could just continue on with the series right away. On that note, however, the series really does get better.

I picked up the series after finishing the mercy Thompson series and Kate Daniels was listed a lot as similar reading. I also noted people had a lot to say about the relationship between Kate and Curran. I raced through the first book waiting for that realtionship to begin, and when it didn't, since I knew it was coming, I immediately picked up Magic Burns (book 2). I think Ilona Andrews did a great thing with the "long game"
pamelia
14. SueS
They had me at "here kitty, kitty..."
pamelia
15. dean1959
I am a fan of these books. I have read everything I can find by the Andrews team including the Edge series. I like the character dynamic between Kate and all the characters. She is so strong willed and it takes a while for Curran to get through to her. Reminds me of Castle on TV but with magic and swords and shifters. And everybody up above is correct. The first book was okay because of all the world building and character introduction that went on and the rest of the series is amazing.
pamelia
16. Jennifer R
"it'd be like boinking Aslan."

*snicker* I'm pretty sure they never bone when he's in animal form.

Series is very good though.
pamelia
17. Liz S
This is an awesome series! The relationships developed over the series keep getting stronger and sometimes go in unexpected directions. The world building is great. And the dialogue between Kate and Curran at times can have you rolling on the floor.
pamelia
18. Mel H
I loved this book from the beginning. I enjoyed Kate's inner dialogue and the fact they did not continually smack me over the head with lengthy explanations of the world she lived in. I have been a fantasy reader for most of my life (i.e. long time - smile) and didn't mind the fact I was stepping straight into this world. I may be a major minority but I also loved the fact the characters and the world were the story. Don't get me wrong, I like a romantic twist but I did not mind it being a side story, not the main story. I stayed loyal to the series and shared with my sister and friends. They too are now hooked and can't wait for the next to come out. Thank you Ilona and Gordon!!!
Alexis Hall
19. AlexisHall
Gosh, so sorry I’m late with comments. I lost the plot.

@Pamelia
I think first books are always a bit difficult – particularly in invented-world series. I can’t actually think of a single long-running series (with the possible exception of A Song of Ice and Fire) where the first book is the most memorable. Usually, it’s just a sort of establishing shot, setting up how things are going to work for the next million volumes. I guess it’s sort of a taster really, and if you like it, you’ll probably come back for more.

The only other thing I’ve read by the Ilona Andrew team is ON THE EDGE, which I had a similar response to. It was slightly different in the sense that it wasn’t a series with recurring characters, so the story was more self-contained, but there was still a lot of world establishing to do, which I thought detracted a little.

I’ll make sure to give CLEAN SWEEP a look though.

@bri_in_nj
This is pretty much what I’ve heard about the series – and, actually now I think about, about every series I’ve read ;) One of the slight disadvantages of my whistle stop tour through the genre is that I’ve read a lot of first books, and that means I haven’t really seen a lot of series at their best.

Series fiction tends to be its own medium – and it sort of takes for granted the fact you’re going to commit to a large number of books. So I don’t really feel I do them justice since I’m not really engaging with them on their own terms.

@Kareni
Thank you – hope you enjoy the re-visit :)

@Tierney
I would really like to continue with this series but I’m sort of caught in the middle of a long reviewing project. But when I get some breathing space I’ll definitely pick it up again – I managed to get back to the IRON SEAS and IN DEATH, although admittedly that was on audio book.

@Bungluna
I quite enjoyed the first few Dresden Files books – and, you’re right, they do what they do very well. But they didn’t quite grip me enough to make me commit to the whole series. I think I got to about book four.

I think the world building is quite divisive, based on my very limited research. I loved the way you were just left to figure things out on your own, but a lot of people seemed to really dislike that.

I think my growing familiarity with genre tropes allowed me to spot Curran as the romantic interest eventually, but I don’t think I was working on any actual textual evidence for that. As I said in the review, I actually quite liked that they weren’t instantly compatible and things.

@Malin
Chris Hemsworth has a bit of a vacant stare for me … but I can definitely see the appeal. Actually you’ve just reminded me I need to watch the next Thor movie, though I’m afraid I’m a Loki man.

A lot of people did tell me to start on the second book of the series but I am pathologically unable to do that. I didn’t actually feel it was particularly rough. I just felt it was doing a lot of necessary world-establishing type stuff.

I am hoping to come back to the series at some point.

@Estara
As I said above, I was vaguely aware that received wisdom is “start with book two” but I just can’t, and actually I have no problems with book one. It certainly hasn’t put me off the series.

The Curran thing is interesting. I get the feeling he was always intended to be the main romantic interest. Random Surgeon Guy was not just not going to cut it ;) But I like the fact that they’d obviously realised it was going to be a series, and therefore they could afford to pace the romance over several books. And give it that edge of uncertainty. At least early on.

Coming from SF&F myself, I have zero problem with violence in books. I think I mentioned it briefly because I’m aware that some readers are put off by that kind of thing.

@Bungluna
Re Crest – I suspect it’s partly that there was a nonzero chance they could have killed him by accident. I also suspect you’d feel quite bad in general about accusing innocent an innocent person of being a serial killer, especially if the only evidence is “he’s romantically interested in me.”

@LisaF
If I wasn’t in a reviewing project, I’d probably have binged as well because the first book was very, very readable :)

@AmyM
I will definitely be continuing with the series, just probably not immediately because I’ve got other books on my reviewing pile.
I was definitely slightly thrown by the lack of a standard romantic relationship in the first book, particularly because Curran does get a lot of attention, but I’m not sure if that was just my own genre expectations coming into play. And, actually, it’s pretty refreshing – as I think I said in the review – when there is more time and space given to developing the relationship at a slower pace.

@SueS
Yes, because smart-talking the local alpha shapeshifter always ends well ;)

@dean1959
I didn’t quite make the Castle connection myself, but now you mention it, I can totally see where you’re coming from. I liked Kate a lot, too. She’s quite full-on in the first book – she’s sort of badass turned up eleven and she never really shows any respect to anyone, but kind of can’t help liking her anyway. It’ll be interesting to see her develop over the course of the series.

@Jennifer R
This is my perennial problem with shifter romances. I just think even if they’re not in animal form at the time, you still know it’s *there*.

@Liz S
I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where the series goes in the future. Probably more reviews incoming :)

@Mel H
My own background is mostly fantasy too, so I was completely okay with the world-building and practically non-existent romance. And, again, as a fantasy reader, I’m being smacked in the face by overdone exposition since I was about twelve years old, so I also really appreciated the lighter touch here, and the way the interplay between the characters and the setting were as much a part of the story as the actual catch-the-killer plot.
Kareni
20. Kareni
Alexis,

I read your book Glitterland today. I enjoyed it very much and will definitely be reading more of your books.
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