In her Heartstriker series, Rachel Aaron builds a world in which magic has come roaring back into the world and humans are scrambling to keep up, while dragons, who were around before it faded out of the world, are sitting pretty with their claws in everything. Most dragons are ambitious, cut-throat, proud, aggressive, greedy, and charming the way the world’s most elegant sword is charming. Julius, a young dragon in the great Heartstriker Clan, is nice. And if I were a dragon, that word have been dripping with disgust.
I read the first book in the series earlier this year, and enjoyed it enough to buy this second book when it came out at the beginning of August. All my favorite characters returned for the second round: Marci, the academic magician; Justin, the hothead knight; Bob, the infuriating and occasionally helpful seer; Chelsie, the dragon that other dragons check under the bed for. A new dragon – who can’t seem to confine herself to this planet, physically or mentally – showed up and was immediately added to the list of favorites. The villains stepped up their game. The ghost cat woke up from its nap and did something unexpected. All in all, I liked this one much better than the first.
While the first book seemed to focus on Julius being the only dragon in the world who wasn’t born with psychopathic tendencies, this one showed a greater variance in dragons. The Julius versus The World tone of the first book shifted just a little, so that it was obvious that there were reasons why the dragons acted the way they did. Some of it was their nature, and a lot of it was how they learned to survive in the cut-throat world they were born into. The slight shift made a lot more of the characters relate-able, and made the world feel less two-dimensional.
I flew through the novel, eager to see what would happen next as two of the dragon clans went claw-to-claw in a battle of seers and knights.
Now, I’m just waiting for the third one…
On the island, Thisby, the Water Horses get restless every October. They start coming up out of the water, pawing at the beaches, shrieking, breaking boats, and taking a bite out of anyone or anything that comes within reach of their teeth. And, on the island, people capture the Water Horses, train them, and race them, every October. Brilliant.
I loved this book. The sense of place immediately locked me inside the narrative. The island – all cliffs, and wind, dried grass, and towns content in their old age – felt real, populated by people who were at once wild and every one of them marked by the dangers and pains of things wilder than them.
The two main characters, Puck and Sean, both lost their parents to the Water Horses, and yet both choose to race. Their reasons boil down to the choice to do one thing: preserve home in the way that matters most to them. Watching them become friends over the course of the month’s training was both sweet and aching, knowing that only one of them could win the race, and they were both building futures on the prize.
The story was tense and relaxed, in all the right places. The dual perspective is one of my favorites in any book, and the narrative delivers on every threat and promise. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a new fairy tale, the way they used to be told: full of the kind of danger that hardens your marrow, and the quiet bravery that you think you might actually find.
Celaena Sardothien lost her family when she was very young. After being trained most of her life as an assassin, something goes wrong on a job and, in one day, she loses both her lover and her freedom. She is imprisoned in a salt mine and each day is a struggle to survive the hard labor, the lack of food, and the cruelty of the guards.
All of that happens before the book even begins, and unfortunately, might have been more interesting.
In the first chapter, Prince Dorian arrives, inviting her to come back to his castle with him to compete to be the King’s Champion. His best friend, Captain Chaol comes as well, and within a few paragraphs of each other, Celaena worries about whether or not she looks attractive, and then considers how good Chaol’s blood would look decorating the floor. I wondered if Celaena was a psychopath.
All of the King’s advisers bring in men to compete for the apparently coveted title of Champion (we never actually learn what the job entails, other than some royally approved murdering, maybe). The men are all either corrupted soldiers, mercenaries, thieves, assassins, or murderers. There’s not a single reputable one in the bunch. It wasn’t any surprise when some of them started showing up dead in the hallways. I wasn’t even surprised when they were showing up dead and eaten. They might all have been psychopaths.
What surprised me was the number of times that Celaena had to tell the audience that she was the world’s best assassin. And how many times people surprised her by simply walking up behind her. In her room. Even after she had rigged all the doors and windows to squeak very loudly because she was concerned about a murderer in the castle. Two paragraphs ago.
And then I was surprised by the number of pages we spent with Celaena as she danced, flirted with the prince, took long walks with a foreign princess, flirted with Chaol (who, I will admit, I sometimes got confused with the prince), played the piano, read books in bed, and ate candy. The competition was shoved into the background, with significant events in it being passed by in single sentences. Within a few chapters, Celaena had better credibility as a courtier (though a catty one, who couldn’t play well with anyone who ranked below royalty), then she did as an assassin.
This book was the equivalent of a chihuahua trying to jump high enough and bark loud enough to convince the world it was a mastiff. And I felt like the mastiff standing in front of it: incredulous, and then just bored.