Heart of Stone, by C.E. Murphy (Luna, 2007)

Rationally, Margrit Knight knows that jogging after dark — after midnight, no less — in Central Park isn’t a good idea. Irrationally, she does it anyway, eager for the clarity of mind and feeling of freedom it gives her to defy fate like this. When she’s interrupted one evening by a strange, pale man, she takes it all in stride, dismissing him as a mostly harmless crank. That is, until he turns up on the news the next day as a murder suspect. Now the man, who introduces himself as Alban, is stalking Margrit, intent upon obtaining her help in her capacity as a lawyer, albeit one working for Legal Aid. He claims he’s innocent, and strangely enough, Margrit’s inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But the more Margrit is exposed to Alban’s world, the more she’s drawn into an old, strange game. One where gargoyles soar through the air and take on human form at will. One where dragons and djinn, vampires and selkies are all real and living in secret among us. One where her on-again, off-again cop boyfriend Tony thinks Margrit’s in league with the killer. One where if Margrit can’t pit some very dangerous people against one another, people will keep dying. For a mere mortal, Margrit Knight is about to become one heck of a player among the Old Races. If she doesn’t get herself killed, first.

Heart of Stone is the start of a brand-new series from C.E. Murphy, already known for her other Luna series, the Walker Papers. And so far, it’s shaping up to be just as good, if not better than her previous works. The heroine, Margrit, is a curious mix of recklessness and practicality, the sort of woman equally at ease running in Central Park after dark and instinctively defending herself against surprise attacks, and the sort of woman who takes on the most hopeless of cases, right before bearding the most powerful men in the city in their own dens. One character claims she’s got metaphorical balls to do what she dares, and I agree with, and applaud her audacity. Here’s a character who will go far out of sheer nerve and chutzpah, as long as she doesn’t make a fatal mistake. From businessmen to crime lords, cops to squatters, Margrit can handle them all.

Tony, the occasional boyfriend, comes off as your average cop: harried, well-intentioned, but dedicated to upholding the law. Unfortunately, while he’s somewhat sympathetic, he has a certain streak that makes him seem like a real jerk, reminiscent of Michael Celluci, from Tanya Huff’s Blood Books. The crime lord Janx is more interesting, with his odd blend of vicious practicality and personal honor, which makes his scenes with Margrit play out very nicely. Likewise, the powerful business man, Eliseo Daisani, helps balance things out with his own ruthless attention to detail and willingness to throw money at a problem before taking it to a bloodier level. And of course, you have Alban, the centuries-old gargoyle, the tormented yet noble outcast with his love for humanity and weakness for a certain woman. . . .

Looking back at that, it would seem as though Murphy had populated the supporting cast with stock characters, but that’s hardly fair, or accurate. Tony, Janx, Daisani, Alban, Margrit’s roommates and friends, they’re all interesting and fleshed-out as best they can be given space and plot constraints, and the next two books in the series are bound to expand upon what we already know.

Obviously, the characterization is one of this book’s strong points. The plot itself is well-paced and intriguing, even as it follows several red herrings before getting to the final revelations. I like the idea of a human — a lawyer no less — with the courage and creativity needed to deal with multiple supernatural races as a go-between, negotiator (in fact, the series is called The Negotiator) and investigator, especially since the way Margrit goes about it reminds me of a saying: “It’s amazing what one can do, when one doesn’t know what one can’t do.” Her reactions, after the fact, are appropriate and telling.

I enjoyed the setup of the hidden world of the supernatural Old Races. Murphy gets major points from me for finding supernatural races to explore that haven’t been overused of late, such as selkies and gargoyles. She’s very good at, in this book at least, keeping the dragons and vampires extremely low-key and in the shadows, making them appropriately mysterious and powerful. Just for trying something new, this book scores high with me. That it succeeds, all the better. It’s a breath of fresh air after the plethora of vampire and werewolf books on the shelves today.

Oh, and Murphy also continues the happy trend of the Luna line being just as much about fantasy and plot as it is about romantic entanglements. There’s certainly no happily-ever-after here, just a slowly-simmering, growing attraction between Margrit and Alban (like that’s a surprise to anyone) and the relationship difficulties between Margrit and Tony (again, like that’s a surprise.) You might find this book in the romance section, you might find it in science fiction, but regardless, it’s definitely worth picking up. Once I started reading Heart of Stone, I just couldn’t put it down. I’ll be eagerly anticipating future installments.

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