Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Kirt Graves
Length: 11 hours, 40 minutes
Illusion is the 3rd book in the 6-book Fire & Brimstone series and is not a standalone. The books should be read in order, as each one is a chapter in a continuing story; thus, this review contains spoilers for previous books in the series.
While the aborted confrontation with Lucifer answered the question of what Riley is and his importance, the emotional fallout leaves Riley in an even more ambiguous place with his Guardians. In the aftermath of Noel’s sacrifice and his subsequent rescue from the bowels of a dungeon in Purgatory, the bonds Riley and his fledgling family have been forging are severely tested. Though gone from the mortal plane for a few hours, in Purgatory, Noel was in the hands of his demonic captors for days—being brutalized physically, magically, and mentally in the worst ways. Scarred, in chronic pain, and alternately fearful and wrathful, Noel’s suffering is a constant within the household. Noel’s habit for self-destruction manifests outward, turning his penchant for going for Jai’s soft spots when upset into purposeful maliciousness. After all, what better way to punish himself is there than to hurt his Other?
Jai being Noel’s Other and the one he clings to amplifies Gideon’s guilt, self-disgust, and the helplessness he feels for his inability to keep Noel out of danger or to help him now. The barrier of propriety and reserve Gideon hides his emotions behind becomes absenteeism that, once again, leaves his more volatile Secondaries and Riley with too much freedom. While Riley aches for all of his angels and only wants to support and comfort them, he’s still too unsure of his place among them to freely act. To them, having Riley’s trust and being a part of his lovely, generous heart is the best thing to ever happen in their existence, but the damage done by Ms. Janet’s conditioning, his stent in a mental institution, and their perceived abandonment when he was a child keeps Riley from seeing the depth of their love and devotion. Riley desperately wants to believe that they love him in their own ways as much as he loves them, but fears it’s all an illusion. After all, his Guardians have been together for two centuries, sharing a history and easy (sometimes confusing) intimacy Riley is at turns intimated by and jealous/resentful of, so how can he ever be a part of that?
Plus, after finally tapping into the dark power inside himself to save Noel, he’s forced to contend with his own internal “other.” Having accessed the demonic side of his heritage, Riley can no longer lock down that part of himself and now has the constant, opinionated (and slightly bloodthirsty) Alter Riley in his thoughts, forcing him to acknowledge the complicated, messy, and sometimes ugly truths he avoids. Riley’s only respite comes from the normalcy he finds among his college friends and, surprisingly, his angelic training and mentorship under the archangel Uriel. But as fractures between archangels and heavenly leaders that have existed since the Fall bubble beneath the surface, agendas abound—from those who want to use Riley as a weapon to those who’d rather see the mongrel abomination put down and everything in between. Navigating, let alone understanding, the politics, rules, and undercurrents is still beyond Riley’s capabilities, leaving him exposed in even more ways; thus, when the secrets, jealousy, denial, and fear between Riley and his Guardians explode, Riley is left vulnerable and exposed to his greatest threat in the worst way.
Illusion is pretty angsty and centered in the dynamics of this hot mess of an angelic family. If it wasn’t clear by Sacrifice, this book tramples any illusion that all angels in this world are anything other than, for lack of a better description, ridiculously human. So if you’ve picked up Illusion without reading the previous books or have set expectations on what guardian angels are/should do, this installment will probably make you want to pull your hair out and/or rage quit the book/series because, once again, the biggest threat to Riley is his Guardians. They are preoccupied with Noel’s struggles, and since no one talks about their feelings, they keep making the absolute WORST choices. Gideon feels helpless so he pretty much bails, has no idea how badly Noel is doing or that as Noel’s rock, punching bag, and sole support for months, Jai is drowning. Even when Riley calls him out on it and he’s home more, Gideon still misses the growing romantic closeness between his ward and his Secondaries. Riley becomes an oasis of solace for Jai that Jai can’t seem to keep his hands or lips off of. However, ravaging Riley’s mouth and self-control only to declare that what they’re doing can’t go anywhere or is wrong feeds Riley insecurity and, in turn, Jai’s remorse and guilt in a never-ending loop—keeping Riley off-balance and at arm’s length in spite of Jai’s growing possessiveness.
This growing uncertainty is complicated further by the reality of Riley’s love for Noel. For months, Noel avoids Riley and only turned to Jai for comfort as he struggles to manage his trauma, pain, and rage, but as Noel begins to heal, he and Riley slowly find their way back to one another. No matter how hot the fire Jai’s touch stokes in Riley, it’s never burned away the memory of the kiss Riley and Noel shared that fateful night. Soon, Riley is as physically involved with Noel as he is with Jai and the possessiveness and jealousy between Jai and Noel hinted at before soars to new heights. It doesn’t take much to upset the tenuous balance and healing in the household or for Riley to finally crack under the pressure and take drastic measures.
Although the story deals mostly with Noel’s trauma, its effects, and rebuilding, Knight does a good job exploring this theme with all the MCs. Riley had been slowly undoing the damage of Ms. Janet’s abuse, but there’s a huge, hidden byproduct he now has to face. With Riley now training in the angelic realm, there is also more world building and incorporation of characters Riley can talk to and learn about his angelic genetics from. I really enjoyed his relationship with Uriel and found these scenes to be a nice break from all the drama with Jai and Noel. It’s also a fun and clever way to show that yes, Riley is super subby and has a hella praise kink. Honestly, in some way, Uriel has been the best guardian Riley has had; he cares about Riley, but has the emotional distance needed to guide Riley that Gideon only pretends at.
I also appreciated that, while this is a series about a polyamorous relationship, it isn’t a dynamic that everyone can easily slip into. Despite how close Jai and Noel are, they have set emotional boundaries between them that aren’t readily crossed. They’ve also spent centuries trying to be separate entities so sharing Riley because they are an Other pair isn’t as easy as it would seem, especially since Jai has some strong opinions on the topic. Hell, Gideon isn’t even in play romantically, and I can see him holding out until at least the fifth scroll.
Since the conflict with Ms. Janet is practically signposted by Gideon in the last book, I was surprised by the Guardians lack of preparedness for her intentions (although I probably shouldn’t have been). However, Knight does a pretty good job of utilizing the seeds of doubt previously planted to make it work. It also highlights Gideon’s own emotional compromise. While Noel and Jai’s is obvious, Gideon is even more physically reserved than Riley, so his inner turmoil is shown in being off his game and how much he misses. He also buries himself in research and “things” in the heavenly realm to avoid dealing. Gideon comes across as almost as oblivious as Riley in many ways, but considering his warning to his Secondaries about their attachment to Riley early on, his lack of knowledge about how deeply they have fallen for Riley wrings false and seems more like a shield; if Gideon doesn’t examine their behavior, then he can ignore how discomforting the depth of his own feelings have become. Just like his ward and Secondaries, it’s easier to run than face the truth, and while the repercussions for the Guardians’ SUPREME lack of guarding aren’t as brutal this time, they are still soul deep and irrevocable. However, I can’t say Riley isn’t actually better off and maybe safer…physically anyway…
Again, Kirt Graves delivers an engaging narrative performance that balances the story’s rough edges. Illusion is an angst and emotion heavy book, and Graves rises to the challenge. Graves expresses the emotional ebbs and flows of healing and growth in Illusion so well. He believably conveys all the heaviness, as well as nailing the delivery and timing of Knight’s well-placed comedic and lighter beats. As there is no emotional resolution for Riley for anything in Sacrifice before Noel is taken and even more issues are piled on, there is a bit of retreading of Riley’s emotions, but Graves continues to portray Riley and his inner turmoil with such heartbreaking veracity, I want to wrap Riley up and protect him almost as much as his Guardians. Graves deftly handles the subtle differences between Riley and Alter Riley and I enjoyed his portrayal of the source of Riley’s sass. Depending on your tolerance for dramatics, copious tears, and back and forth apologies, the story progression and pacing can be a bit slow and I know that Graves’s performance helped me stay present and sympathetic during scenes where I probably would have been frustrated and/or skimmed if reading. As a middle child in this six book series, Illusion may not have a lot of action, but in the midst of the heavy exploration of trauma and teenage drama, it sets up some intriguing avenues for the next installments, and even though the series is finished in ebook, I’ll still wait for Kirt Graves’s narration.