The Bone Men are the monsters that even monsters fear. Shadowy assassins, ruthless and evil, nothing and no one stands between them and their prey but the very brave or the very foolish. No matter his heritage, Neil is neither, and after watching the Bone Men kill his mother in their kitchen, he does the only thing left to do: he runs. With his mother’s dying words still ringing in his ears, Neil takes his mother’s car and drives as fast as he can. Neil is left with only one thought in his head: to run as fast and as far as he can. There’s no doubt in his mind that either his father sent the Bone Men, or someone who hates his father. Either way, it’s a fight he can’t win and Neil has no desire to be caught in the middle. He’d rather die than go back to his father.
Mal is a tinker, an alchemist who can take materials and alter their natural form into something else. He can turn rocks into gasoline, metal into chalk, smoke into glass; it’s his mother’s blood that gives him this magical; gift and he’d rather be his mother’s son than his father’s. He also likes cars. Taking them apart, putting them together, making them go fast. It may not be the most exciting life, living in the slums and mucking about in the garage he and Merc call home, but it makes him happy. What doesn’t make him happy is the blue-eyed innocent who claims to own the expensive car that he has no papers for, who startles at shadows and has powerful dark forces chasing after him.
Mal knows a thing or two about running. Fortunately, he also knows a thing or two about chasing as Neil, in an effort to put distance between himself and his past, ends up running right into trouble. First it is the pirates who want to make Neil their “cabin boy,” then it is the fight on the docks. When Neil reveals to Mal what he truly is — demon spawn and incubus — so much makes sense: why his necromancer father wanted him and why Merc wanted Mal to get rid of him. When Neil is kidnapped, Mal takes it upon himself to rescue the young man. And when Neil’s father discovers where his son is and who he’s with, Mal refuses to just step aside.
Over the weeks they spend together, Mal gets to know Neil. Something in the wide blue eyes calls to him, a reminder of his own innocence. The shy smiles, the easy, open honesty, and the way Neil trusts him. No, Mal won’t let the young incubus go without a fight. And considering that they’re up against a demonic necromancer… it’s going to be one hell of a fight.
Before I get into the review let me warn you that this book contains rape, prostitution, slavery, abuse, and torture. While they do serve the story’s purpose and are not overly gratuitous, they are there. This is a decidedly dark book with an angelic, innocent protagonist in Neil, a wounded hero in Mal, and some very unpleasant antagonists. I have mixed feelings about this book, but I do think it’s a good book, all things considered.
Neil is astonishingly innocent. He’s an angel who has never had a cruel thought and who doesn’t realize that random people might not have his best interests at heart. Despite being bullied as a young man, he still walks into the pirate’s arms with a guilelessness that would make anyone want to shake him. There are many parts in this book where I wanted to shake Neil. He is forever getting in trouble, forever wondering why bad things are happening to him. It was like he was a two-dimensional trope just sitting there, waiting for me to dislike him. But somewhere between the pirates and Del’s house, I began to understand Neil.
Never once in the book does he change who he is. He doesn’t grow more jaded or world-wise. He stays sweet, open, and confused. He is always and completely 100% purely Neil. He isn’t an active character, making things happen. Instead, he reacts to events around him, doing his best to stay afloat in the ever-changing waters of the fae world while he waits for — and hopes that — Mal will save him. The authors took the trope that Disney uses to its advantage of the princess in peril and somehow turned it into a real, true, and three-dimensional character. By the end of the book, I was actually fond of Neil and wanted him to have his happy ending.
Mal isn’t an alpha. He isn’t aggressive or domineering, he isn’t all-powerful or brilliant. He’s a young man who made foolish decisions, was hurt badly, who had bad things happen to him, and who slowly managed to pull the broken parts of himself together. He’s cautious and compassionate and when he goes after Mal, it’s not because Neil is the most lovely or because there’s something special about the young man, he does it because it’s the right thing to do. As Mal gets to know Neil better, their relationship changes from an unwilling protector and his prince to two people who flirt. It’s slow and sweet and flowed so naturally from both characters. While the wide-eyed innocent incubus angle was another trope I’m not 100% a fan of, somehow the authors made it both believable and real. Neil may be a virgin, but he’s not shy or insecure. He knows what he wants, which is being with Mal, having sex with Mal, and is willing to see if Mal’s willing to let him have it. Mal’s own trauma makes him cautious, but Neil is so open and receptive that it takes an aspect of sex and makes it both safe and welcoming for Mal.
However, there were two issues with the relationship that I didn’t care for. While with Del, Neil is raped. He’s forced to give a blow job to the landlord who owns Del’s house. Neil seems to get over this quickly, pushing aside the unpleasantness (especially as he’s rather brutally beaten afterwards), and while some attention is paid to the physical recovery from the beating, nothing is said about the sexual assault. Mal, as a young man, was also sexually assaulted. He hints at unpleasant encounters with men (he was in his late teens, early twenties), and while he’s had time to recover, he has also never again had sexual interest or attraction to men. Until Neil. Personally, I think these issues, especially Neil’s as it happened during the story, need to be dealt with with more than just a passing mention. I would also have liked to see a little more character growth in this book. Neither Neil nor Mal have an arc leading to any significant growth for either of them. Instead, this book is mostly about the plot and the world building, and it shines so well in those two areas.
The fae in this world are powerful and mysterious, with Leprechauns, Seelie, cluricans, goblins, you name it. The power of true names, the way magic worked, the way laws and compacts interacted, it was intricate and — while it’s all based in actual mythology — it felt like it’s own beast here, and I enjoyed every new glimpse into the rich world the authors created. But in a book with no character arc, the story has to be all the stronger for it. However, the story here felt more episodic and sprawling than focus and driven. I felt like the villains and the resolutions to their particular arcs weren’t handled effectively or well. The most vile of the two had an off-screen death, so to speak, failing to give us a sense of pleasure at his demise. He was simply gone, with neither Mal or Neil having a hand in it. The second villain was 90% buildup, 9% tension, and a mere 1% drama. He served his purpose, but once that was done, so was he. It wasn’t exactly anti-climactic, but it happened in little more than a page of text for all that the book spent so much time trying to make him out to be the most evil thing in the world. But, this is book one, and it only makes sense to save the actual big bad for the end of the final book.
This story reads more like a series of adventures tied together with so much happening between one chapter and the next that I felt a bit mentally exhausted at the end of it. The writing is good and Neil, while he started out annoying, truly ended up growing on me. The plot is very well, er, plotted and while I have a few issues with the characters actions and reaction, and with the way several scenes were handled — or not handled — I did enjoy this book and am very much looking forward to book two. It’s the perfect combination of grim and violent with sweet characters and a deserved happy ending .. even though it’s only the beginning of their story.