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Review of House of Cards by

House of Cards

by C.E. Murphy

Margrit Knight is a New York lawyer who likes late-night runs through Central Park, cutting deals with a dragon crimelord and a vampire businessman who are centuries-old sworn rivals, and flying naked through the city at night with a gargoyle with whom she is falling in love. And she has no superpowers. Rather, her ability to negotiate among the five Old Races is due to the fact that Humans Are Special, and the affable natures of Janx and Eliseo Daisani are evidence that Humanity is Infectious. Just ask Kaimana Kaaiai and the selkies.

It's a sensible direction for the trilogy. I don't mean to mock Margrit for being just another human being. Seeing as she is underpowered, however, she obviously needs another angle that puts her on equal footing with the other members of the Old Races in New York. On the other hand, the careful dance of dialogue and drama in House of Cards is an argument for reconsidering any evaluation of species based on what makes them different or powerful. So what if dragons breathe fire and djinn can dematerialize at will? There's one common denominator for all of the Old Races and even humans: brains.

No, not brains as in "grarrrgh, braaaains!" We have yet to encounter any zombies. Brains as in wits. Although zombies would also have been an acceptable answer, had Murphy chosen to go with that.

House of Cards is a story about power plays. The selkies, lead by Kaimana, are making a play for readmission into the Old Races after their centuries of self-imposed exile. Janx and Eliseo are used to their game—but part of the moral of this story is how complacency costs, as Janx discovers in the case of his bodyguard, Malik, and Eliseo discovers while trying to entrap Margrit. Even someone on top can be vulnerable. And even those on the bottom, like Alban Korund, who appears nothing more than selfless protector, have an agenda.

So all of the Old Races, and humans, want leverage and power. Eliseo and Janx, despite being vampire and dragon, respectively, are after the same basic goals. The former just does it through "legitimate" avenues while the other lives like a mob boss. To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to. And that's what makes humans special. Lacking any particular abilities other than the need to make babies ALL THE TIME and that peculiar habit of genocide, humans need their wits to survive. As Margrit is keen to observe several times, the Old Races are very set in their traditions. They just don't think of things the way humans do until a human points it out.

I admire Margrit's propensity for "pointing stuff out" (also known as "getting into trouble"). In fact, it's her best quality. That and her dogged perseverance toward some sort of justice. It's not that Margrit is incorruptible so much as she is so finely balanced between Janx and Eliseo that neither has yet managed to "own" her. She's beholden to both—and, a testament to her own wits, they are each beholden to her in some fashion. Again, it's not their superpowers that make Janx and Eliseo so formidable. They just happen to have hundreds of years of practice. Margrit isn't even thirty.

The interaction among humans and members of the Old Races makes for a delightful dynamic. Sometimes I wish there was more "alien" than "affability" in Janx's nature, and Eliseo never seems as threatening as he should be. But when lumped in with Cameron and Cole and Margrit's mother, it presents a broad spectrum of society. I like how Murphy draws from people lurking among the super-rich (Eliseo, Kaimani) to the impoverished (Carey Delaney, Grace O'Malley). Part of me wishes we saw more members of the Old Races. Margrit makes vague references to "many" selkies at the masquerade, some Old Races employed at the House of Cards, and we get to see another djinn in addition to Malik. I know that their numbers are greatly reduced, but as Margrit observes in the book, it seems a big leap that a quorum of one representative from each species can make decisions that affect all of the Old Races.

House of Cards doesn't have a human-oriented mystery like Heart of Stone did. Tony mistakes Margrit's machinations for an attempt to take down Janx, but other than that, everything is about the world of the Old Races. There is a mystery, but it's more political than personal in nature—a "whydidit" instead of a "whodunit." I liked this change, since the Old Races are the most interesting part of the world Murphy has created. (And were we surprised by this? No. It's urban fantasy. The fantastic elements are going to be the most interesting part. I don't read urban fantasy for the cityscape, unless it's one created by China Miéville.)

<cite>[Heart of Stone](/heart-of-stone)</cite> was an adequate introduction to the Old Races, but the trilogy finds solid footing in <cite>House of Cards</cite>.  This is a middle book that definitely lacks signs of "middle book syndrome."  I'd still recommend starting with the first book in the series, since it gives some needful background, and part of the appeal of this book is that the story hits the ground … running.


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