Note: Some spoilers for the first book, Cold Burn of Magic.
In Dark Heart of Magic, the second book in Jennifer Estep’s BLACK BLADE teen urban fantasy series, the adventures of seventeen year old Lila Merriweather ― orphan, ex-homeless person and pickpocket, current bodyguard, and swordfighter extraordinaire ― continue. In a world that contains both normal mortals and magicks, humans endowed with different magical powers, Lila has two extraordinary powers: soulsight, which enables her to read the emotions of another person by looking into their eyes, and transference, the ability to mirror another person’s magical powers that are being used against her. This makes Lila a particularly valued bodyguard for the Sinclair Family, one of the most powerful magical families in the town of Cloudburst Falls, which has unusually high levels of magical activity ― so much that it’s become a tourist hotspot for people who want to see pixies, monsters, trolls and other magical creatures.
Lila intends to serve out a year-long term with the Sinclair Family and then leave town, despite the “soulful green eyes, teasing grin, and rocking body” of Devon Sinclair, the son and heir of the head of the Sinclair Family. Devon is a caring, kind person who wants to pursue a relationship with Lila, but because of her plans not to hang around long-term and her unwillingness to allow anyone to get too close to her and possibly hurt her, Lila keeps pushing Devon away.
Lila gets roped by the head of the Sinclair Family into taking part in the annual Tournament of Blades, a sword-fighting competition with over a hundred competitors. The competitors also include her friend Devon, Deah Draconi (daughter of the arch-rival Draconi clan and past champion of the Tournament), Deah’s nasty brother Blake, and Katia Volkov, a gorgeous redhead with designs on Devon’s best friend Felix … who’s no longer interested in Katia because he’s now involved in a Romeo-and-Juliet type of secret relationship with Deah Draconi. Winning the Tournament will bring honor and accolades, as well as a cash prize, but Lila would really prefer to avoid attention, particularly from the nefarious Victor Draconi and his son Blake, who killed Lila’s mother years ago and whom Lila now suspects of planning to take down the other magical Families and take control of Cloudburst Falls.
What with sneaking into the Draconi mansion to discover Victor’s plans, trying to figure out who is killing all of the tree trolls in town, and pining after Devon, Lila has a lot distracting her from the Tournament. Not that Lila really cares about the Tournament, at least at first, but when an unknown person sabotages the obstacle course that’s the first round of the competition, gravely endangering Lila and others, Lila starts to think it might be worth trying to win the Tournament.
Between the competition, the murdered tree troll mystery, Draconi skullduggery, another mystery about Lila’s family and past, and the obligatory love interest, there’s a lot going on in Dark Heart of Magic. The quick pace and multiple plotlines help to make up for some superficiality. Lila, who has a young and frequently snarky voice, narrates the story. I didn’t find the constant sniping of Lila and some of the other characters particularly witty, so it got tedious for me, but younger readers might disagree. The characters, other than Lila and the hidden villain, are strictly one-dimensional. Even the secret villain is fairly easy to spot, given a couple of rather obvious clues that Estep leaves in the text.
As the main character, Lila has some greater depth, particularly as she attempts to come to terms with her painful past and determine what she really wants in life. But, as often happens in fantasy novels, Lila’s skills are over the top, between her super-special magical powers, amazing sword-fighting ability, and expert skills at spying, pickpocketing and lock-picking. In fact, she’s extraordinarily good at pretty much everything except interpersonal relationships.
Overall, Dark Heart of Magic is a light and fun read, if you don’t mind some murder and mayhem. I’d recommend this to a teenager who likes fast-paced fantasy adventures with a dash of humor, but isn’t looking for anything really deep or complex. If you enjoyed Cold Burn of Magic, the first book in this series, you’ll probably like this one just as well.