House of Cards
by C.E. Murphy
(Luna, $14.95, PG-13) ISBN  978-0-044101-303-6
****
The second in Murphy's Negotiator trilogy may lack the shock value of its predecessor, Heart of Stone, but it makes up for it in sparkle. Hard-headed lawyer Margrit Knight is back and just as embroiled in the lives of the Old Races as before, despite her gargoyle lover's insistence that his absence from her life will keep her safe.

Margrit is the type of heroine everyone falls in love with – not just the males in the novel, but the readers as well. Remaining true to the character created in the first book, Grit is determined to make the best of her association with what remains of the dying Old Races: gargoyles, vampires, djinn, dragons, and the exiled selkies. Her logic is that you can't un-know what you've learned, and even if she did, none of the Old Races would believe it.

Alban, the gargoyle with whom she's in love (and whether or not that's unrequited remains a hovering question for her for much of the book, adding a nice spicy romance), cannot be convinced this is true until the selkies come out of the woodwork. Believed to be near extinction, when they appear en masse to request Margrit's help, she is loathe to deny them. Although her primary loyalty is to Alban, and she is aware of the society because of him, Margrit still owes the dragon/crimelord Janx two favors and after the murder of her boss, she has taken a job with the vampire leader and famous businessman Eliseo Daisani. Not to her dismay, she is permanently ensconced in their world.

However, when Janx's right-hand man, the malevolent djinn Malik, threatens Margrit's life, her precarious position is upset once more, drawing her deeper into Janx's world and forcing her to bring Daisani more firmly into her own as he extends his protection to her family.

Alban, the elusive but very grounded hero of the series, has a secondary role in this book. Though he has been cleared of murder charges, for most of House of Cards, he feels that his presence in her life brings danger to Margrit. Margrit's so busy with her new associations and her own personal turmoil that the absence won't distract or irritate readers. Actually, looking into the lives of Janx and Daisani, and watching Margrit's odd relationships with each man is as fascinating as her romance with Alban.

House of Cards, which is the name of Janx's gambling establishment, also describes the way Margrit sees the existence of the Old Races.  Her inclusion in a hearing about their three laws surprises her, however; and though it stirs things up, it may also serve to better settle the Old Races into the modern age.

The book creates more questions than it answers; in true trilogy style, Murphy isn't giving anything important away until the final book. Where Heart of Stone created a world rife with colorful characters and focusing on two, House of Cards delves into the shadows and gives readers a peek at the ties binding all of these characters together.

More urban fantasy than paranormal, and heavy on the suspense, C.E. Murphy's Negotiator trilogy should be read as it's written. Margrit and her world are terribly modern and definitely too harsh to be considered a traditional romance, but could still appeal to readers of more traditional fantasy or of paranormals. Laurell K. Hamilton fans, always looking for a filler-in, will be pleased to find such a strong – and not in the slightest bit whiny – female lead.

--Sarrah Knight


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