Tarnished City (Dark Gifts #2), Vic James

These people. Their power. The good they could do with it, and the evil they chose instead. 

Abi Hadley is a fugitive. Her brother Luke, a prisoner. Both will discover that in the darkest places, the human spirit shines brightest.


While amid his family’s intrigues, Silyen Jardine dreams of lost powers from an earlier age. As blood runs in the streets of London, they will all discover whether love and courage can ever be stronger than tyranny.


* * * * 

4 / 5 

Tarnished City is leaps and bounds better than Gilded Cage, the first book in this series. It’s more critical of power and slavery, more developed in it’s exploration of morally dubious characters like Gavar and Silyen, and far more emotionally impactful. At one point I almost cried. Best of all, the “romance” between Jenner and Abi is mostly thrown out the window. This book is a wild, complicated, messy, gloriously convoluted ride and I loved it.

Better to wear a collar you could see. That way you never forgot.

Having read Gilded Cage a little while ago, it did take me time to remember what had happened (I couldn’t find a recap online and James doesn’t go into all the details at the start of Tarnished City). We left Luke Hadley Condemned for the murder of Chancellor Zelston, smoking gun in hand and no memory of the act, on his way to the home of supreme torturer Lord Crovan. Abi has leapt from the moving vehicle that was taking her and her parents to Millmoor, now on the run and looking for a way to rescue her brother. Heir Meilyr, stripped of his Skill and physically damaged, has fled with his fiance Bodina Matravers to Castle Highwithel, whilst her sister, Bouda, attempts to hasten her wedding to Gavar Jardine to cement her political power. Silyen is manoeuvring himself like a slippery serpent whilst working with his Aunt Euterpia “Terpy” on Skill use.

“What are you, Silyen Jardine?” 

Which was a good question. Silyen thought about it.

“Curious” 

Tarnished City has got the politics. It’s got families striving for power, for justice, for freedom, for family itself (in an interesting development of Gavar Jardine), and, in the case of Silyen, for mayhem for mayhem’s sake. We’ve got Bouda trying to lever herself into power, realising that despite everything (including a really horrible scene), there’s not much she can do in the face of misogyny. There’s shifting allegiances and surprise twists which managed to captivate me despite them involving only minor characters like Lord Rix. Thrown into this mess is a handful of new characters including a character who I hope will feature prominently in the next book: Midsummer Zelston, a young, gay, black woman steals the thunder at the end. Almost literally.

“Omnes vulnerant; ultima necat. 

All hours wound; the last one kills.” 

This does lead me to my only criticism: too many POVs. It’s a problem I had with Gilded Cage, that there are so many intriguing characters that I can definitely understand why James wants to spend time with each of them, but the hopping around still makes the book feel disjointed. We go massive swathes of pages without seeing Luke, whose time at Loch Eilean was fascinating and inventive, or Abi. Again, it should either have been a longer book or less POVs, in my opinion. What James did fix was the issue I had with Abi and Jenner, where the obvious inequality in their relationship was never acknowledged sufficiently; a slave cannot love their master because they are not free to act as they wish. This point was explicitly acknowledged in Tarnished City.

“Watch,” the boy murmured. “Watch and understand.”

 “What am I supposed to understand?”

“That you don’t get to save everybody” 

Speaking of romance, it is virtually banished in favour of high stakes. In some scenes literal stakes. There’s blood, guts, gore, sacrifice, and revolution. There’s Heir Meilyr, still bold and brave, perhaps foolishly so, in the face of his loss of Skill. There’s Bodina Matravers burning bright with grief and anger, The Angel In The North. There’s Abi Hadley resentful that they need an Equal at all to front a revolution against the Equals, grappling with an age old problem: your oppressors cannot truly understand your pain, but you need them to liberate you from themselves. Because if someone does not see you as truly human why would they listen to you? As Lord Jarvine puts it: the truth is what we say it is. And it’s so terribly unfair. In a way, this book is about sacrifice, and it’s really pulled at my heartstrings.

London’s burning, she thought. Burning with the Skill of the Equals. Could it ever be put out?

Bound into this story is the mystery of the Skill. What can these people do? Why? How? Why is Silyen so powerful when Jenner cannot even open a gate? It’s a question that I think is going to come to the fore in Bright Ruin, which I’m very much looking forward to. I absolutely devoured Tarnished City and I think this book is a perfect intro (after Gilded Cage!) for readers into darker, grittier fantasy.

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for an ARC of this book 

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