This Dangerous Magic
Jayel Wylie’s 2001 debut novel, A Falcon’s Heart, was a wonderful surprise in the midst of a personal romance reading slump last year. It was a quintessential sleeper of a novel: a book from which I expected very little, having heard nothing about it or the author, and instead found myself swept up in a wonderful story with an interesting setting, historical texture, and a surprisingly original paranormal element. I recommended A Falcon’s Heart to many friends and fellow romance readers.
So I opened Wylie’s new book with high expectations. While the setting, paranormal aspects, and indeed, many of the characters from Wylie’s first book are the same, I was disappointed to find this sophomore effort to be a much slower and more aggravating read.
This Dangerous Magic picks up approximately twenty years after the events of A Falcon’s Heart. Alista and William, the heroine and hero of that book, are now a middle-aged couple with four children. Their daughter, Malinda, shares the faerie powers that her mother and grandmother had, but is headstrong and stubborn about how and when she uses them. Meanwhile, Tarquin, the illegitimate son of William’s cruel brother-in-law, has grown into a young man who sees himself as cursed and inherently evil. Rather than disappoint the family he loves (particular Alista), he has exiled himself as a mercenary in the Mediterranean and Middle East. When Tarquin finally returns to England to see his sister wed, he is also unable to get a dream vision of a beautiful woman in desperate danger out of his mind. On meeting Malinda, he knows instantly that she is the woman from his vision. Yet he resists her, sure that his curse will destroy her.
The amount of explaining I had to do above just to introduce the two main characters is one reason that This Dangerous Magic is frustrating reading at the start. It is a sequel that cuts almost no slack to a new reader or one who needs her memory refreshed. Although I loved A Falcon’s Heart, I read it eighteen months ago, and have read dozens of books since. The barrage of returning characters and new offspring had me reading and re-reading the first few pages of the new book and flipping to a genealogy chart, trying to remember who everyone was and how they all knew each other. It doesn’t help that the family connections are quite complex once you figure in half-relations and illegitimate offspring.
Moreover, many actions and motivations of both old and new characters draw heavily on the events of the first book. Again, the situations are rarely explained. If I had problems with it, I imagine that a new reader would find the story nearly incomprehensible.
Malinda was my biggest problem with the book. She is in her late teens but acts like an immature brat even by today’s standards, let alone in an age when she would long since be considered fully grown. She recklessly endangers herself and her loved ones by toying with her powers in places where she could easily find herself burned as a witch if caught. She is self-centered and refuses to listen to any of Alista and William’s very good reasons to keep her far from the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her desire to be one of Eleanor’s ladies-in-waiting makes her vulnerable to the Queen’s machinations in a way that nearly get her killed.
Hardest for me to forgive was Malinda’s use of her powers to render Tarquin incapable of resisting her, after he has repeatedly distanced himself from her for seemingly good reasons. Her actions are consistent with her headstrong attitudes and immaturity but were still unpleasant to read. In fact, her actions border on rape, if they don’t outright cross that border. I completely sympathized with Tarquin when he ran far away after the night they spent together.
Tarquin has his own issues. While he doesn’t approach Malinda’s levels of cluelessness, he is forever dwelling on his own inherent worthlessness as a human being. However, as more of his background is revealed, there are real reasons for this; it’s not mere “tortured hero” melodrama.
What Wylie does well, she does very well. As in the first book, the writing is strong and descriptions are vivid without being flowery or purple. She evokes the poisonous politics of court life, and masterfully mixes real people like Eleanor with fantastic situations like faerie magic. The historical aspects feel real and earthy, although occasionally anachronistic dialogue like “You’re a peach,” “Catch me up,” and “Thanks a lot,” creep in.
This Dangerous Magic is saved by its final third. Once all the elements are at long last in place – Tarquin and Malinda finally recognize the consequences of their actions and their true feelings for each other; Eleanor’s schemes enmesh the protagonists in dangerous plots; and the true villain is revealed in all his scenery-chewing glory – the suspense picks up. I finished the last hundred pages at the same break-neck pace that I devoured A Falcon’s Heart.
The climax is a decent payoff for the slog through the early part of the book. However, between the confusion of trying to remember (or learn, for new readers) all the relevant details from the first book, and the near wall-banger behavior of Malinda, I fear that many readers will not make it to that point. My advice is to definitely read A Falcon’s Heart before attempting this book. I hope for a return of the unadulterated magic of Jayel Wylie’s first book in her next outing.