Iron and Magic is the first book in the Iron Covenant trilogy, a spin-off from Ilona Andrews’ New York Times bestselling Kate Daniels series set between the ninth and tenth books (Magic Binds and Magic Triumphs, respectively). This novel focuses on Roland’s former warlord, Hugh d’Ambray, as he fights an internal battle and mysterious magical forces—and his new wife, a powerful woman known as the White Warlock.

After a prologue showing how Roland had Hugh brought to him as a child, Iron and Magic opens by showing the aftereffects of Hugh’s failure to do as commanded. Since Roland dismissed him and cut him off from his magic, Hugh has largely existed in a drunken stupor attempting to drown out the void left where his master’s godlike presence once dwelt. But when the soldiers of the Iron Dogs are being killed for their loyalty to Hugh, he realizes he must pull himself together for their sake.

Hugh and his remaining soldiers need food and shelter, and Elara has a castle but needs defenders against the head of the Golden Legion and his vampires: exactly the type of enemy the Iron Dogs specialize in destroying. However, the two leaders’ advisers fear that an alliance between their peoples will not work unless it’s difficult for their union to be broken when it inevitably becomes advantageous for one side to split, and they propose a political marriage. Neither Hugh nor Elara is particularly pleased with the idea of marrying the other, but they both agree to do so for the good of their people—and they wed even though they despise each other from the first time they meet.

Though I once considered the Kate Daniels series to be one of my favorites, my enthusiasm for these books has been steadily waning since the seventh installment. The last few novels have not met the same high standards set by the earlier books, and I thought that the last book I’d read before this (Magic Binds) was the weakest one yet—in fact, I probably would have quit reading the series at that point if the next book had not been the finale.

Given that, I was leaning toward skipping Iron and Magic even though I would have once devoured any book related to Kate Daniels. I was somewhat curious about Hugh’s story, though, and then I heard that this should be read before Magic Triumphs. So I set aside my copy of the latter and purchased a copy of Iron and Magic to read first.

Reader, I have regrets.

For all my problems with Magic Triumphs (which I read right after finishing this and will be reviewing separately), it was at least readable and fun. Despite occasional interesting parts, I cannot say the same about Iron and Magic, which I found to be largely boring and nowhere near as polished as even the more recent Kate Daniels books. It had many of the classic Ilona Andrews features—a magical mystery plot, a grand fight, main characters being powerful and badass, incorporation of less commonly utilized mythology—but the execution fell flat. The fights and tactical discussions were dull, the attempts at witty dialogue failed miserably, and typographical errors were numerous. The secondary characters did not have much personality of their own, and the main characters were not particularly engaging either.

There was potential for some interesting characterization with Hugh, but it seemed to me that the authors erased a lot of what made him compelling in an attempt to make him more palatable as a protagonist. Part of what made Hugh such an intriguing villain in the Kate Daniels books was that he and Kate were raised similarly but made different choices and ultimately decided to follow very different paths—but it turns out that Hugh never actually had a choice.

The very beginning of this novel shows how Roland not only started training him when he was a child without a family, but promised him he’d never be hungry again. He told him he was special and unique and he’d teach him to be able to take care of himself, all while exuding that loving charismatic demeanor that made Hugh feel as though he were looking upon God. However, instead of exploring this connection and how it shaped Hugh, all his bad actions are waved away by making him into Roland’s puppet. Hugh didn’t want to do evil, and if Roland wanted him to do something he didn’t want to do, he simply overrode his free will and adjusted him to want to do as commanded.

That’s not to say that Hugh was automatically a good person as he dealt with the aftermath of having been cast out by Roland. He certainly acted like a real jerk at times, but there were also plenty of cliche signs that he wasn’t so bad underneath it all: his men remained loyal to him, animals and children immediately liked him, and of course, Elara eventually fell for him.

Like Hugh, Elara had potential to be fascinating but didn’t quite hit the mark. In many ways, Elara seems like Kate except her character was built in a rush and not handled with nearly as much skill. Elara too has a mysterious power that she tries to hide, but it’s not as subtly drawn as Kate’s was nor does it seem as creative as hers. Her magic even reminded Hugh of Kate’s, and she’s also fiercely protective like her.

The love-to-hate relationship between Hugh and Elara was also reminiscent of the romance that occurred in the main series, but instead of gradually developing throughout several books as a secondary plot, it was a hurried and unsatisfying main plot. The progression of their relationship did not seem natural since they went from despising each other to sometimes being attracted to each other for no apparent reason to TRUE LOVE. Though there were some scenes in which they’re supposed to be seeing each other in a new light, I didn’t think they worked well. They didn’t get across why they would suddenly start to like each other strongly enough, and it seemed more like they were drawn to each other because the story required it than because it seemed fitting for their characters to do so. Furthermore, their “banter” was not particularly amusing or clever: it largely consisted of the two calling each other names like “harpy” and “bastard.”

Despite not enjoying most of Iron and Magic, I did enjoy learning more of Hugh’s thoughts on Kate and Roland and having some background when reading Magic Triumphs. (And I did rather like the divine elephant, brief as its appearance was.) However, this novel was not vital to reading the last installment of Kate Daniels, and in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend my time and money on a different book. I doubt I’ll be continuing Iron Covenant or reading any further stories related to the Kate Daniels—even though it was, once upon a time, a series I loved.

My Rating: 3/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.