Heart's Blood
by Gail Dayton, historical/fantasy (2010)
Tor, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-6251-3


Heart's Blood is the second book in Gail Dayton's series about an alternate Victorian England setting full of magic users trying to save the magic in their world by restoring "dead zones" - areas where magic is completely gone due to reasons still unknown and where strange machinery created from tools and equipment through unknown means rule unchallenged. But they get sidetracked now and then by other drama, such as the one in this story.

I have not read the first book in the series, New Blood, when I begin reading Heart's Blood, but I still manage to follow the story pretty well. Still, my knowledge of the setting depends solely on what I have read in this book alone, so forgive me if I get a few details wrong here and there.

Now, in this world, we have four kinds of magic. I'm not sure what wizardry and alchemy do, as these two schools of magic are not the main focus of this story. I can tell you, however, that the school of conjury is more akin to necromancy: conjurers can communicate with and summon spirits, which are souls of the departed that have moved on but can still return to this plane to aid people. Then we have sorcery. Sorcery is an interesting school: it is exclusively practiced by women. Because the Imperial Council of Magicians is run by misogynistic fools, where no woman is allowed to enroll in the Academy, it comes as to no surprise that for a long time, sorcery is thought to be a dead school of magic.

Here is what sorcery is about. It is called "blood magic" because sorcerers get their powers from blood. From the spilled blood of innocents, she can scry into the past to determine the circumstances leading to the spilling of the blood. A sorcerer can also, by sharing a little blood with another person, "ride the blood" of that person, delving deep into that person's mind to discover that person's secrets. Therefore, it is no surprise that sorcerers are very useful, along with conjurers, when it comes to solving crimes that involve the spilling of blood.

When this story opens, sorcery is slowly making a comeback thanks to the rise of a powerful young sorcerer, Amanusa. She's the heroine of the previous story, however, and this story is that of another sorcerer, a young woman named Pearl Parkin. Pearl is an orphan who survives on the streets of Seven Dials by disguising herself as a boy and using what little magic she knows to cast protective spells on herself. While she is forbidden from learning magic officially due to the ban on females, she is determined to exploit a loophole in the system. There is nothing to stop an established magic-user from taking her as an apprentice, so she's going to find one who will take her on. Should she succeed, she will get an opportunity to live a life better than the one she has now.

Meet Grey Carteret, the Magister of the School of Conjury. He is a Magister because he is one of the most powerful conjurers in the country, and we are talking about magical abilities as well as power bestowed by the authority of his official post. When Grey finds himself arrested under the suspicion of having murdered a man in what seems like a demon-summoning ritual, Pearl finds herself to be in the position of being the only one who can assist him. She decides to apply some, er, persuasion to get him to agree to take her on as his apprentice. She will soon find herself assisting Grey in the quest to take down what seems like a rogue magic-user bent on committing some sacrilegious ritual for who knows what reason and killing people in the process. The both of them will discover just how well sorcery and conjury go together in Victorian-era CSI, but not only that, love is naturally in the air.

There are some moments that give me pause, and because I have not read the previous book, I do not know whether I am missing something or the author has overlooked some much-needed explanation. For example, Grey is stubbornly against taking an apprentice at first, and I don't know why. The impression I get is that he is worried that he is going to end up playing tonsil tennis with a female apprentice, but that seems like a silly reason to me.

Still, there is no shortage of things in Heart's Blood to keep me hopelessly fascinated with the story. The author has clearly put a lot of thought into how magic works in her story, and I find the whole thing too much fun to follow. The concept of magic being divided by the gender of the practitioners is nothing new in the romance genre, but the author's concepts of blood magic and conjury are intriguing and entertaining to delve into. Reading this book gives me a strong sense of discovery as I turn the pages. I feel like a child running wild in a dizzying fun fair, excited and a little bit nervous as I turn the pages of this book. For me, a fantasy or science fiction story that manages to make me feel as if I've been transported into a brand new strange world is already on its way to being a good one.

While the plot is interesting and the world building is good, the romance is easily the weakest link in this story. I personally don't mind the weak romance too much as there are many things here to make up for that lack, but you may feel differently if you read this book expecting a romance first and foremost. Ms Dayton doesn't focus heavily on her characters' feelings and thoughts about each other like a typical romance author would, so the romance feels underdeveloped and even superficial. There's not to say that there aren't any romantic scenes that work - there are - but the romance is also made up of a series of clichéd and uninspired conflicts. Pearl cannot believe that Grey can love some nobody like her and starts finding excuse to sabotage her happiness. Grey turns abruptly into a whiny crybaby who endangers the whole investigation because he suddenly decides that Pearl is a faithless lying whore when he has no reason to think so. In other words, their romance is everything a good romance shouldn't be.

Weak romance aside, this book also falls apart pretty spectacularly in its final quarter or so. There is a dramatic denouement here that is thrilling to read. However, there are also a piling up of problems here. The characters start behaving stupidly, for one. Also, for a long time, Grey decides against summoning Amanusa and her husband back to London, reasoning that the newlyweds need some quiet time. The fact that when he finally decides to do so and the investigation then moves rapidly with the arrival of Amanusa makes Grey really come off as irresponsibly dense. Not only that, characters begin doing bizarre things in the name of love. Amanusa and her husband pause in the middle of investigating a dead zone to exchange smooches and love coos in a laughable scene clearly designed to show me, the reader, how much they are in love. I suppose they are lucky a piano doesn't crash down onto them at that moment. Worse, Pearl starts becoming weird, wailing about her personal issues when the world is literally collapsing around her. Yes, I know love is beautiful, but hello, we have people dying out there and a monster on the loose. How about having a sense of priority?

The very flawed final quarter or so of this book makes me reluctant to give this book a higher score. Still, I have a most wonderful time reading this book because when it is good, it is an amazing rollercoaster ride. Excuse me, I am need to get my hands on the previous book right away.

Rating: 85


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