Doctors Mikhail Stanslovich and Dante Savoy have done the impossible: They found a way to bring the dead back to life. When the talented artist, Nicholas Alexandre, is dragged into their work room having been shot in the stomach by a jilted lover, it seems an easy enough task. A little surgery, a little blood transfusion, a little science, and the young man will soon be up and painting again. But Mikhail is facing down the demons of self-doubt and opium, as well as the actual demon, Azgarth. Is it his science or fae magic that reaches past the veil of death to return young men like Nicholas to life? Is it is his miracle or Azgarth’s machinations that helped him bring back Valentine, his first success?
For over two hundred years, Roman has been an ‘agent’ of Azgarth in the mortal realm. He is responsible for collecting the rare, the valuable, the extraordinarily talented humans that so delight the fae lord. In Azgarth’s service he is responsible for the safety of these men and women, and for their obedience. He encourages them to create works that will please the mercurial and evil monster that is Azgarth, caring for their every need and reporting to the fae lord when they disobey. When Roman was given Nicholas as a charge, everything changed. Not only did he fail to keep Nicholas alive, he has also fallen in love. For Nicholas, Roman is willing to do anything to protect him and anything to free him from Azgarth’s clutches. He failed Nicholas once; he will not do so again.
Nicholas signed his life away to Azgarth, asking the fae lord to protect his beloved sister, but when Juliana died her soul was lost to the fae realm. When Roman sacrifices everything — body, mind, and soul — in an effort to rescue Nicholas, the young painter realizes two things. The first, he’s in love with Roman. The second, he will no longer allow Azgarth to harm the ones he loves. It’s time for them to remove their names from Azgarth’s evil book and break free of the fae lord’s hold. These humans, however, aren’t the only ones who want to see the evil fae lord fall. There’s a new player in the game, the equally dangerous Oiredon who promises them their freedom … for a price. His price.
The lords of fae are going to war with no care for the fragile lives of the humans they play with. They have no more consideration for the mortal world than a man would an ant nest in his yard. It’s up to three broken men to brave the dungeons and tortures of Azgarth’s hellish palace in order to gain back their souls and save humanity.
I was not aware that this was the second book in a series. Had I known that I might have been more prepared for the way the plot came flying at me. And there is a lot of plot in this book. Taking place in a fantasy Victorian world where magic and technology exist, side by side, the three main characters — Mikhail, Roman, and Nicholas — each have a different purpose and a different perspective in the story. Mikhail is a man of science, Nicholas a man of art, and Roman is a man of the world. It’s an interesting tangle of threads, and for the most part, it works.
Nicholas is a young man who lives a fast life, taking lovers from gentleman clubs and following his artistic muse. He’s the least developed of the trio, but we see more of the fae world through his eyes. He not only sees the horrible garden of souls, he understands it. He has an innate ability to parse the symbols the fae use and it helps him when he must struggle to free Roman, to figure out how to navigate through a castle built by no human hands. But other than those two scenes, Nicholas isn’t really all that interesting, at least, not to me.
Roman has been playing Azgarth’s game for a long time and does his best to protect his charges. He’s taken punishments for Nicholas to protect the young painter, and I get the feeling Nicholas is more of a symbol to him than a person. Nicholas is young, beautiful, and mostly innocent. He’s someone to be treasured and someone to be rescued. As old as Roman is and as much as he’s been hurt by Azgarth, he needs something to hold on to. Nicholas is his holy grail; the purpose of the quest, the reason for fighting, the ‘why’ of his suffering. As cautious as he is — and with good reason — I doubt he would have dared to move against Azgarth if it had not been for the danger Nicholas is in, or the fire in Mikhail.
Mikhail, too, owes his soul to Azgarth. Rather than feeling sorrow or shame, he feels a white hot rage. He and Dante (and their assistant, the brilliant Henri) managed to free the musician Valentine from Azgarth. If it’s been done once, it can be done again, right? Mikhail is cold, though not frigid. His icy armor is the armor of someone who has been hurt and refuses to go through that pain again. He’s brittle and sharp and in love with his partner, Dante. He’s equal parts shame and unrequited lust, yet another pain that he turns on Azgarth. It’s Mikhail who drives much of the story, pushing them again and again to find answers to his questions, to find doors into the fae world they can open.
Azgarth comes across as equal parts crazy and cruel. Rather than having a fist of iron in a velvet glove, he’s a giant spiked gauntlet covering a fist of molten acid he uses to beat, punish, and scour the minds and bodies of everyone. He’s too evil, too strong, and I appreciated the introduction of Oiredon as another villain, this one more regal. He’s the one with the velvet glove, with promises of freedom and safety without actually doing much of anything. It’s the humans who find their way in, it’s the humans who must fight their way out and Oiredon who takes the credit.
The world building in this book is rich and intricate. I’m not usually a fan of gaslamp fantasy, but the author managed to draw me in. Unfortunately, as much as I liked the world building and appreciated the rather byzantine plot, I wasn’t a fan of the romantic couple. Because they knew each other before the book began, and because one of them was usually either partially dead, astral traveling, or had his soul taken into the fae world, there was almost no actual relationship between them. It was implied, but never actually drawn out.
Personally, I like books that don’t spend pages and pages on tedious exposition, instead leaving the reader to figure out the details of the story as they read along, learning about the world and the characters in a more organic fashion. I loved the mythology of the fae in this world and the hints at realms within and beyond the fae lands. With the way the book ends, I’m fairly certain there will be a third volume. There’s no cliffhanger ending, but I don’t get the feeling that the fae world is done with Mikhail, Roman, or Nicholas.