I didn't expect much from the first book in the Devil's Isle series, 'The Veil' (review here). That's partly because New American Library felt for some reason that they had to market it with the sort of cover that usually sits on a romance novel and partly because I've read too much already about New Orleans being the point at which our world touches the world of magic. However, Chloe Neill built her particular New Orleans with style and substance and her characters likewise. And I enjoyed the heck out of it.
So I expected rather a lot from its first sequel, 'The Sight' and I'm not sure yet if I'm disappointed or not.
I certainly enjoyed it on a lot of fronts. It successfully avoids all the clichés I knew it could easily slip into. It continues to build the characters of Claire Connolly, the heroine of the series, and of her bounty hunter mentor and obvious love interest, Liam Quinn. It introduces something new, in the fundamentalist cult of Reveillon, and builds that into a highly impactful new angle to the series. It lets some more characters in on a few more secrets, but leaves plenty left unspoken. And it adds some new characters too, like Erida, a goddess of war. It even sets up the next book to follow an unexpected direction. In other words, all the disappointments that I thought might show up thankfully went somewhere else instead.
The catch is that there's very little here in the way of plot. Neill is a very patient writer and she lets her characters grow slowly but surely and in believable detail. There are no wild leaps ahead here, just steady growth that helps to make us feel at home in this New Orleans, a solid achievement given that half those living there don't feel at home even if they want to. But all that worldbuilding and character building has the downside of taking up most of the page count. That means that the main plot feels like a subplot and nothing feels like a main plot.
The idea is that a man named Ezekiel, a religious fanatic, has drummed up enough discontent within the local human population, especially in Camp Couturie, a refugee camp for those displaced by the war with the Paranormals from beyond the Veil, to be able to start up a substantial cult. He's its charismatic head and he preaches that New Orleans can never return to its prior glory without healing the soil. To him, it can only be done by destroying all the magic in the city, which in turn means killing everything that has anything to do with magic.
For those who didn't read book one, that means a heck of a lot of people. There are Paras, magical beings from beyond the Veil who can't go home because the only way we know about is closed and will remain so to ensure no more unwanted visitors. There are Sensitives, humans corrupted by the magic residue in the area to have minor magical talents. There are Containment, the powers that be in the city who police the District, colloquially known as Devil's Isle, a sprawling open air prison that contains all known Paras and Sensitives, where they can be monitored and prohibited from using magic. And there are Wraiths, who are Sensitives corrupted by the magic within them because Containment prohibits them from using it. It's a vicious cycle that makes no sense except in the language of bureaucracy.
And so Ezekiel isn't content with Reveillon painting signs and marching down streets. He needs them to take action and so they do, using the tools of terrorism. You might think that this is an awesome idea for this series and you'd be right. New Orleans is a shadow of its former self because it was the battleground of a major war. Much of it is destroyed and what's left is so polluted by magic that the power doesn't stay on for long and electronics are flaky indeed. Containment is staffed and funded well enough to deal with Devil's Isle but it already has to farm out the Wraith business to bounty hunters and they don't have too many resources to track down more magical beings to confine. They aren't remotely staffed or funded well enough to tackle a well armed terrorist threat.
Unfortunately, while the plot does go exactly where it needs to go (even if the twist wasn't unexpected), it does so too far into the background. The early scenes, with Claire and Liam undercover inside Camp Couturie, are tense and personal ones that reek with danger. At that point, this was easily a step up from the capable first book. However, Neill writes this relentlessly from Claire's perspective, so that when she's not where the action is, we're not where the action is either.
We can't focus too much on the plot when it's happening way over there where the plumes of smoke are. We can't watch people plan when they're not in Claire's vicinity and have no intention of including some local merchant in on the gossip. We can't see the groundswell Ezekiel taps to build Reveillon because it's invisible to Claire except for odd moments of intersection. We don't have enough information to see the next move, just enough to piece together what the last one was, and that's a really odd feeling. Sure, we focus instead on Claire's reaction to all this instability and that's valuable but it's not the same thing.
Given where we end up, which I will absolutely not spoil, I wonder if this approach will bear fruit later in the series. It certainly seems like most of the important people in the story, whatever side they're on and whatever role they have in the big picture, have parts to play in her personal story too. Perhaps the real value is in that smaller story and how it interacts with the bigger one. Only time will tell and I'm eager to find out. Maybe I'll get more disappointed at being kept away from the action, but maybe I'll get more on board with watching it through the Claire Connolly filter.
Sadly, there are only two books out in this series right now and it's not Neill's primary one. She's already published twelve books in her Chicagoland Vampires series in eight years and the thirteenth is due this April. I'd guess that the third in the Devil's Isle series may show up in August so we'll have to wait until then to see where she takes it. ~~ Hal C F Astell