Ilona Andrews was not my first encounter with the urban fantasy genre. Not by a mile. I’ve been devouring books of this genre since I was 18 and a friend at uni first introduced me to Kelley Armstrong. I’ll get to the Women of the Otherworld series in due course, but for the first Urban Fantasy series I reviewed, I had to make it my favourite.

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews – the pseudonym of an epic wife and husband duo – is one of those rare books that is close enough to being flawless that you develop an abiding love for the author, and the character, and the series. And while I will say that I did not find every book in this series to be quite so perfect, they’re all damn close. Enough that of all the many, many urban fantasy series I’ve read over this year this one stands out as my favourite by many a mile. It may even be my favourite series, period. I struggle to figure that out as comparing it to my others (which are High Fantasy) doesn’t really work due to the huge differences in the genres.

But I digress. 

You’re here for a review of Magic Bites, the first book of the Kate Daniels series, and that is what you shall have…

A Review Of Magic Bites: Let’s Start With The World Building…

Set in a re-imagined version of Atlanta, in a time when magic has returned to the world and we are all now fully aware that what was once believed to be myth was, in fact, reality, Magic Bites has one of the most comprehensive and imaginative worlds I’ve ever read. It’s firmly grounded in the reality of Atlanta, while totally warping it into a version that has been decimated by the return of magic.

Magic flows in waves. When the magic is ‘up’, pretty much nothing technological works. When it’s down, tech works sporadically, where it hasn’t been damaged or destroyed by the magic. People have changed too. Those with innate magical abilities in their blood lines manifested them when magic returned, and the world is rife with witches, vampires, shapeshifters, and all manner of beasties, who are largely divided into factions and communities working in opposition or uncomfortable alliance. 

Ilona Andrews skillfully weaves a tapestry of rich mythology and raw, authentic emotion, creating a narrative that is both intellectually engaging and deeply human. The novel’s references to real and familiar mythology, made reality on the page, is one of my favourite things about this series. To give just one example, Celtic warrior lore – and in particular the warp-spasm depicted in ancient tales of Cúchulainn – showcase an impressive depth of mythological knowledge, adding layers of historical and cultural texture to the urban fantasy landscape.

I say this having studied Celtic mythology to PhD level; it is so easy for the inclusion of myth and history to be clumsily executed or cliche. In this series, it’s sublime. 

This depth is paralleled in the novel’s treatment of violence. The descriptions are brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of Kate Daniels’ world, yet they’re handled with a sensitivity that avoids gratuitousness. This careful balance heightens the impact of each scene, ensuring that the violence serves the story rather than overpowering it. Which brings us to the main character…

The Wonder Of Kate Daniels

Central to the novel’s appeal is Kate herself. Her voice is a finely tuned blend of intelligence and sophistication, tempered with just the right dose of sass and sarcasm. This combination makes her a formidable force, yet utterly relatable. She’s not just a badass character; she’s a character with a heart, one that feels deeply and empathetically. Kate’s emotional responses to the atrocities she encounters add a layer of complexity to her character. She’s haunted by the darker aspects of her work, yet remains unwavering in her commitment to her responsibilities. This nuanced portrayal of strength and vulnerability creates a protagonist who is not only admirable but also genuinely human, resonating with readers on multiple levels.

The way Ilona Andrews delivers exposition and backstory in Magic Bites is a testament to their skill in storytelling. Rather than resorting to cumbersome info dumps, the majority of the backstory is seamlessly integrated into the dialogue. This approach not only maintains the pace of the narrative but also enriches the reader’s understanding of the characters and their world in a natural, unforced manner.

Kate’s distinctive voice is a crucial element in this narrative technique. Her sarcasm and wit infuse even the most informative monologues with a lively, engaging tone, preventing them from becoming tedious. This is particularly effective given the complexity and depth of the world that Andrews has created. The reader learns about this world in the same way they would learn about a new friend – gradually, in bits and pieces, through conversations and shared experiences.

Moreover, the interactions between characters are not just vehicles for exposition; they are windows into the characters’ personalities and relationships. These interactions are filled with subtleties and nuances that reveal more about the world and its inhabitants with each exchange. As a result, the world-building in Magic Bites doesn’t just serve the plot; it creates a richly detailed and immersive environment that enhances the overall reading experience. Andrews’ ability to weave exposition into conversation and character interaction is a key element in crafting a world that is not only detailed and complex but also vividly real and engaging for the reader.

The Plot Of Magic Bites

Clearly I have a bit of a fangirl crush on Kate, but who is she? Without giving too much away (although there may be the odd minor spoiler) Kate Daniels is a strong-willed mercenary with a mysterious past and formidable magical abilities. Sassy, strong, but also damaged and deeply flawed in some ways, I adore this character.

The plot kicks off with a personal tragedy: Kate’s guardian, Greg, is brutally murdered. This event pulls Kate into a complex investigation that spirals into a much larger conspiracy. As she delves deeper, she finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between two dominant forces in her altered Atlanta: the Masters of the Dead, necromancers who control vampires, and the Pack, a community of shapeshifters. While we’re on the subject, that’s another point in the series’ favour – the shapeshifters come in all shapes, sizes, and species. Not only that, they have human forms, animal forms (which look much like the real animal but usually bigger), and midforms (a human body warped by animal features), which is a twist I found extremely interesting. 

Throughout her investigation, Kate encounters an array of characters, including Derek, a young werewolf; Curran, the enigmatic and powerful leader of the Pack; and various other supernatural entities. Each encounter reveals more about the intricacies of the world Andrews has created, where magical waves intermittently sweep over the landscape, rendering technology useless and bringing forth monsters and mayhem.

The novel is filled with action-packed scenes, showcasing Kate’s combat skills and her use of both magic and physical prowess. The mystery of Greg’s murder leads Kate through a series of dangerous encounters and complex situations, revealing clues not only about the killer but also about Kate’s own mysterious heritage, which is linked to the broader conflicts in this world.

As she navigates alliances and confrontations with various supernatural entities, Kate’s character shines through as resilient, witty, and deeply principled. Her personal code and sense of justice drive her actions, making her a compelling protagonist in a world where the lines between right and wrong are often blurred.

Magic Bites sets the stage for the Kate Daniels series, establishing a richly detailed world with a unique blend of magic and post-apocalyptic elements. The novel concludes with the resolution of Greg’s murder but leaves many questions about Kate’s past and the future of the world she inhabits, setting the foundation for the subsequent novels in the series.

The Romance In Magic Bites

In addition to its rich world-building and action-driven plot, “Magic Bites” also introduces elements of romance, adding another layer to the narrative’s complexity. One of the notable romantic subplots involves Kate and a character named Crest. Crest is portrayed as somewhat peculiar and not entirely likable, characterised by a seeming disinterest in Kate as a person. His fascination appears to be more about the allure of the supernatural world Kate is entwined with rather than a genuine connection with her.

This dynamic is particularly poignant considering Kate’s emotional state. She is grieving and feeling isolated in the wake of her guardian’s murder. In her loneliness and vulnerability, she finds Crest’s presence somewhat comforting, albeit in a superficial way. This relationship highlights a crucial aspect of Kate’s character – her deep-seated need for connection and her struggle to find it in a world where she often feels out of place.

Crest’s character, and his relationship with Kate, serves to underscore the complexity of personal relationships in a world rife with danger and supernatural politics. It reveals the human side of Kate, a woman who, despite her toughness and independence, grapples with the same desires and vulnerabilities as anyone else. This romantic subplot, while not the central focus of the novel, adds depth to Kate’s character and offers readers a glimpse into her more personal battles, beyond the physical and magical conflicts that dominate the storyline.

As romance plots go it is deeply unsatisfying, both for Kate and the reader, and that is intentional; she’s struggling with personal demons and grief, and reaches out to this guy because she is seeking connection. Meaning. Affection and love. Her aloneness in this first book is palpable, and the book’s refusal to instantly fix it by having her encounter and immediately fall in love is another thing that sharply contrasts other series in the genre. And in the best possible way. Over the series Kate develops, grows, and makes those connections. But it doesn’t happen instantly, the second she encounters the people who will become most important to her (several of whom are introduced in Magic Bites). 

This series has plenty of sizzle and spice, but its first outing is decidedly tame in that department. And for the better – it makes the romances that do develop later all the sweeter because they are given room to grow organically and don’t feel forced or contrived. 

The Start Of A Growing Series

While this book can be entirely enjoyed as a standalone novel, with no need to read any further into the series (no cliffhanger ending!), it is the start of something much greater. One of the most commendable aspects of Magic Bites and the Kate Daniels series as a whole is its strong sense of continuity, a trait that sets it apart from many other series, even within the urban fantasy genre, where series share a fairly common format. 

From the outset, Ilona Andrews deftly introduces the core characters who will play pivotal roles throughout the series. This initial introduction is more than just a roll call; it lays the groundwork for complex relationships and significant plot developments in future books. We meet some, but not all of the main characters in Magic Bites. More major players are introduced in later books, while seemingly minor characters turn out to be of seminal importance later on. 

A notable example of this foresighted storytelling is the introduction of the character Red in Magic Bites. His role, initially seemingly minor, is actually a strategic setup for the arrival of one of the most important figures in Kate’s life in the subsequent book. This kind of continuity is not just about maintaining consistent storylines but also about enriching the narrative with layers of depth and interconnectedness. It’s a huge part of what makes the series so compelling, the sense that you’re not reading individual books, but extended chapters of a far longer tale. 

That being said, like any complex series, there are moments of incongruity that show up on repeat readings. For instance, in Magic Bites, Kate wonders what colour magic would be if it had colour, a detail that is later contradicted when it’s revealed that magic indeed has colours, visible to a significant character. And Kate would already have known this in book one. Such inconsistencies are inevitable when writing multiple books, and don’t detract significantly from the overall narrative. To be honest, I doubt anyone would notice them at all if they hadn’t read the series as many times as I have! 

Instead, they reflect the evolving nature of the series’ lore. As the series progresses, the authors expand and refine the rules of their world, demonstrating a dynamic and living universe that grows with its characters. 

This attention to continuity and detail not only makes the series more engaging but also allows readers to invest deeply in the world and its inhabitants. The careful setup of characters and events showcases the authors’ commitment to a coherent, evolving storyline, making each book not just a standalone adventure but a chapter in a larger, intricately woven saga. 

Who Will Enjoy Magic Bites?

Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites is an exceptional read that will particularly resonate with fans of urban fantasy. If you enjoy the works of authors like Kelley Armstrong or Charlaine Harris, this novel is definitely up your alley, offering a similar blend of supernatural elements, strong characters, and intricate world-building. However, Magic Bites stands out even in this esteemed company, elevating the genre to new heights with its unique setting, complex plot, and the depth of its character development.

Readers who appreciate a well-crafted fantasy world where magic and reality intertwine will find the setting of a future, magic-infused Atlanta both intriguing and immersive. The novel’s balance of action, mystery, and personal drama ensures that it offers something for a wide range of tastes. Fans of strong female protagonists will be particularly drawn to Kate Daniels, whose blend of toughness, wit, and vulnerability makes her a standout character in urban fantasy.

The novel’s approach to romantic elements is nuanced and realistic, adding to the appeal for readers who like their fantasy with a touch of heart and humanity. Additionally, the book’s exploration of themes such as power, responsibility, and the nature of good and evil provides a rich, thought-provoking narrative.

Overall, Magic Bites is a standout choice for readers looking for an urban fantasy novel that goes beyond the standard tropes of the genre. This series is what I always wanted the Sookie Stackhouse books to be, but they never were, because Charlaine Harris can’t write that well. She had the same elements to work with, but put them together in a far clumsier way. Magic Bites elegantly offers a perfect mix of action, magic, and character-driven storytelling, making it a must-read for fans of the genre and a great introduction for newcomers. With its sophisticated world-building, compelling plot, and memorable characters, it sets a high bar for urban fantasy and leaves readers eager for more adventures in the world of Kate Daniels.

If you enjoyed my review of Magic Bites, check out my review of the next book in the Kate Daniels series, Magic Burns…