Mastering the Flames by S.J. Himes

Beacon Hill Sorcerer, #4

Guilt-ridden after the massacre of his family, Isaac Salvatore turned to binge drinking to escape the pain. Now twenty-four years old, Isaac is a recovering alcoholic woefully out of practice in the magical arts, leaving his fire affinity hanging on the edge of disaster. After a month of rehab, he returns to Beacon Hill and his family, determined to remain sober, learn to control his magic, and figure out a plan for his life that doesn't involve drinking.

Constantine Batiste is the oldest, most powerful vampire in the city. Born in ancient Gaul, the bastard son of a Celtic king, his long life has been shrouded in tragedy and horrors. Recent mistakes have left him wary and determined to guard his clan from all foes. When two of his clan members fall victim to an ancient evil, he summons the Necromancer of Boston for aid. Accompanying his older brother to the Tower is the handsome young fire mage once wounded by Constantine's arrogance, and their encounter reignites an attraction that burns within both Constantine and Isaac.

The answer to who is targeting the vampires of Boston is buried in the dark, early days of Constantine's transition to an immortal life. Isaac finds himself saddled with a painful insight into the evil cutting a swath through the supernatural population of Boston. While his brother, Angel, takes over the hunt to find and stop the threat to the city, Isaac struggles to find a balance between helping his brother and finding his own purpose and place in the world, free from his brother's shadow.

Falling in love wasn’t part of his plan, but mastering the flames that burn between him and Constantine soon becomes the most important thing in his life, even as an ancient evil seeks to destroy them.

I have been waiting for this story for years after being charmed by the possibility of these two since the second book. I loved the first half, but the second half I struggled with because I think it started feeling a bit forced and flimsy.

Overall it was hard to put down because I was a fan of the characters and world-building already, and I'm glad the author made the book longer than previous books, but sadly this is no longer my favorite m/m paranormal series. I have a lot of issues with the story unfortunately, and this review is ridiculously long due to that. I went different directions on how to rate it, but ultimately 2.5/3 seems good - I enjoyed the first half more than the second, and it's a loyalty to the characters and love of the series that may be making me a little more generous with the stars.

The main issue is Isaac. He was a favorite and I couldn't wait for his book, until I've read it. His addictions, his inner demons, his fascination with the master that he's avoiding, he had the potential to be an interesting and unique character. Instead I think the author was so worried that he would appear too much like his brother that she flattened and almost cartoonized him. If he reminds me of anyone, it would be an earlier Daniel who was too afraid to show any complexity of layers and was simplified.

The book mainly focuses on his aversion to alcohol after his treatment, and the author does add a unique twist to it. I think there was too much emphasis on his panic. An example is the overreaction when he's worried vampires won't like him (without any logical reason attached to that!) because Ellie says one simple thing in an otherwise calm conversation. Or almost having a full breakdown explaining he wants to have a part-time job when it's nothing to be nervous about at all and since he supposedly knows Constantine why freak out about? He spends most of the book crying or almost crying. Panic disorders can be serious things, although he didn't have them in previous books that we've seen -- but his emotions were way overdone even during happy moments and I had thought he would come across a bit more logical/intelligent with some of his reactions. I'm sympathetic and have had years of mental illness issues myself, don't get me wrong, but this was overplayed to the detriment of the writing and character.

A big let-down was the world-building/sorcerer continuation - we'd been told each sorcerer has their own powers and affinities. I was hoping he would finally bond with his magic in this book and couldn't wait to see the sorcerer he becomes - he does bond with his magic in one epic scene (very epic), but most of his sorcerer side is ignored to keep the story simpler.

I know he is not his brother or a fighter, and I wasn't expecting that -- but I still wanted to see him find creative uses with his powers.

Just some loose ideas that could have added a few interesting scenes to the story other than the romance part -- Perhaps a benefit to the vampires with sun-blocking shields with brief time in the sun in an emergency scene where he has to suddenly shield a fledging? A way to remove just the sun heat from a vampire's bad burns so that their natural healing can then take over would have been cool - a play with using his ability to sense and take out the heat like he did for Daniel's burns, but this time seeing a different type of heat that works with the effects of the sun? Just examples of just some of the things that could have been done where he's standing on his own two feet. It could have also tied in his benefit to the vampires and made him feel a bond and their connection more realistic than it ended up being without that rush.

On the plus side, there were a few cool shielding scenes at least to break up the romantic repetition. The apartment monster battle was intense.

As part of his character development, I was hoping he'd find a career and branch out, find some fulfillment in life. I was hoping he would find himself and a career he enjoys that fits previous versions of his character. He gets a part-time job, not a career, that comes out very left-field and I think was put in more to force a bond with vampires and add in more diversity mainly just for diversity's sake.

The scenes with Batiste are ridiculously hot earlier on, especially the roof and the room when curing the blood magic. I re-read both of those scenes entirely, and the first half of the story was the strongest other than flashbacks. The rest of the steamy scenes are sweet. I'm glad the author did a building up to all of this and not immediate. That always works best.

She played up Constantine's habit of watching people eat, which was fun and stayed from the moment with Angel in the first book, although it gets a bit overdone like she wasn't sure what else to do with the characters. They mainly sit together in the room eating, or Isaac sleeps or cries and gets held, but with the length of the story and the lack of some changes in scenery for the most part, there's only so much to fill it. Eating became part of that. The shower sounds incredible, at least.

Angel is here in all his brother's protective glory. I did feel a bit saddened, though. I think the author wanted to have this be Isaac's story so strongly that he becomes a bit too cut off from his brother. With Angel's books, he bonded to many and had interesting scenes with several people - here, Isaac bonds with Constantine and not many others other than a friendship scene or two with Daniel (where they strangely share the bathroom at the same time?).

He makes friends with some vampires which was fun, I dig Ellie quite a bit, but again it felt a little too rushed to feel fully natural. Isaac has more peace with his brother here, but the separation of all them hit me hard and the relationship felt too much like an afterthought and saying goodbye when it should not at all be a goodbye or even a lessening of his existing bonds with Angel.

The Mansion reunion should have been a big scene, and I had a feeling the author would go a certain way with the it, and it turned out I was right. My feelings on that are mixed, I wouldn't think a certain person would have been happy moving in there for several reasons, so again a bit unrealistic. (wanting to remain spoiler free here). It would have made sense to me to have Angel and Isaac have a brotherly conversation about this change with the mansion and add some realism/layers to their characters to where it didn't just come across left-field.

I'm glad the author took the time to make this one so long, I'm glad Isaac had at least one moment with his power, Eroch is fun and adorable as usual, there was proper romantic build-up before it feels cheesy, and the monster was inventively creepy. On the negative side, I've always been fascinated by Constantine and loved Isaac, but I think they lost a much of their complexity and potential in characterization with this book. His weaknesses seemed to be his main focus, while I was waiting to see a layered and interesting person emerge instead.

Also, his main grief issue was his horror at the massacre night and his involvement in it - it wasn't his fault but he blames himself, which is supposed to be the root of his issues. I figured he would open up to Constantine and tell him the dark secret, and perhaps with the vampire he could finally heal and be set free from his guilt. Or even in the therapy sessions with the doctor in the mood, he could make a breakthrough. Instead his focus on vomiting overtakes the actual reasons he turned to alcohol, everyone seems to know his secret without him having to tell them, and it's just not as big of an issue anymore. ??? If his point was healing, then you'd think he would need a big resolution on what was traumatizing him the most.

I know I'll re-read in the future, especially the first half. Maybe I'll not be bothered as much by some of the things I mentioned in the review in the future. I think the author took out the urban fantasy layers to make this a romance but went too far in that direction to where it became cheesy. I also think she was too worried about making Isaac different that he becomes paper-thin and duller. That bothers me a lot since I had such high hopes, but with the length of this review you can probably guess that!

At least we have Constantine not being weakened from my earlier thoughts of him, and he makes some good poetic lines I could listen to all day. The description of Isaac's smoky smell kept warming my heart. There was some humor that was downright cute, like the elevator with the vamps and the date. Overall though I can't ignore the many, many negatives, so this was ultimately depressing for me.

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