Despite Hiram’s skill with magic, his reputation is less than sterling–all because of the assumption that he “trafficks with demons” and because he chooses to live with family whom he freed from his father’s plantation. But when Matthew Blackwell, a powerful aristocrat, alleges that a demon has kidnapped his wife, it is Hiram’s assistance that he seeks. Hiram agrees to look into things and discovers that Phaedrus is the creature who did, in fact, intervene on Mrs. Blackwell’s behalf, but for the sake of Mrs. Blackwell, who was pregnant by another man. Upon learning the facts, Hiram wishes to discontinue his association with Mr. Blackwell, but the man is murderously adamant that he get his wife back.
Soon, Hiram and Phaedrus find themselves captured and at the mercy of Blackwell, who proves himself to be a cruel man indeed. Things take a turn for the worse when Blackwell gets his hands on Hiram’s family grimoires and it’s only a matter of time before he deciphers the spells needed to summon and bind the demon and his errant wife. Desperate times call for desperate measures and it falls to Hiram to make a sacrifice for the sake of saving himself, Phaedrus, and ultimately his friends and family from Blackwell. With cooperation from Hiram’s own powerful cousin, Mrs. Payton Reinhart, there is hope of stopping Blackwell…and perhaps of Hiram finding something more than tentative friendship with Phaedrus.
So, this is an incredible book to mull over. Ackerman has a strong, thriller-esque plot that revolves around Hiram, Phaedrus, and later, Hiram’s cousins, to stop Blackwell. There are a few elements that especially tickled my fancy: body horror and nonbinary representation. Yes, the body horror is what I called a “sacrifice” in my summary and I liked how Ackerman raises the prospect in the text well before it actually occurs…and maintains short, specific references to this event and its ramifications throughout the book.
Then there is the manner in which Phaedrus’ nonbinary identity is built into the story. On page, demons are usually referred to as “creatures,” so there is a brief period where coy reference is achieved through use of the character’s proper name and these un-gendered demonyms. But there is clarity when Phaedrus explains “I am not a man [… o]r a woman. I was not made to live in a body. I won’t be held to any standard because I ended up with one.” Even with this pretty clear explanation and Phaedrus instructing Hiram to use the pronoun “they,” there is a lot of interaction between Hiram and Phaedrus that revolves around, dare I say, identity politics. Mostly, it feels like an exploration of Hiram, who I believe is a cis gender, white, gay male, to develop an emotional attachment to Phaedrus. This exploration occurs on multiple levels, starting with the kind, emotional connections that occur when people experience tragedy together. Later, the story deals directly with the manner in which physical traits affect the perception of gender between partners (I promise it’s not quite so DRY in the actual text!). And through it all, I felt delightfully challenged on my own perspective on nonbinary indentity.
In addition to the adventure of chasing after the terrible sadist that is Blackwell and exploring attraction between not-exactly-enemies/not-quite-opposite characters, the story also takes up some slavery/abolition themes. Hiram lives in obvious poverty because he sold the family plantation and freed the slaves. He also lives with some of the slaves he freed, which the book explains limits his options for housing (i.e. there is segregation in this world). I’m not sure if the people Hiram lives with are truly, biologically related to him. As far as I can discern, Hiram is white and the women he lives with are black, I believe freed by Hiram. The youngest of the people living with him is a girl of about seven. She calls him uncle and he calls her niece–but I’m not sure if this is just an affectation or their actual, biological/legal relationship.
Also, there is a side character named June, who is a demon that got enslaved by Hiram’s father and forced to battle other slaves; June was set free by Hiram himself. This tells me that slavery is an institution Hiram cannot personally abide. I thought June was also interesting because when he interacts with Hiram, we pick up a little more about Hiram’s ability as a mage as he is able to converse with June across time. Why does Hiram communicate across time? Because present-day June absolutely despises Hiram, but future June cheerfully helps Hiram out. I liked how this about-face in the relationship is unexplained but explicit, meaning there are a lot of other elements in Hiram’s life outside what we see on page.
There is also a brief element of polyamory. This comes through Hiram’s cousin, Payton, who maintains a marriage for the sake of decorum, but privately, she and her husband are involved romantically and emotionally with one of their footmen. Given that Payton doesn’t figure into the book until about half way, there is far less time to explore this and, well, she’s not really a main character. But I still appreciated the care that Ackerman took in including and describing some elements of this relationship.
Overall, this was a rather engrossing story. I read it in one go and loved the development both of the thriller aspects with Blackwell, the brief dip into body horror, and how often the prose touches on and expands upon queer themes. I think Ackerman utilizes Hiram as a character extremely well to explore the dynamic between Hiram and Phaedrus and to observe Hiram’s cousin’s polyamorous relationships. Personally, this techniques really helped me appreciate these elements without feeling like I was being proselytized to. I would recommend this story to anyone who is interested in books featuring nonbinary characters most especially, but also for anyone who likes historical or paranormal themes.