Playing With Fire is the first book in the Criminal Elements series and the debut novel of the husband and wife writing team of Cris and Clare Myers. It introduces the characters of Stone and Renee, international criminals who possess an innate talent for magic. After meeting on a job in Russia that goes horribly wrong, Stone and Renee run into each other again years later. Deciding their skill sets and talents work well together, they form a partnership that soon turns romantic. When they are contracted for a job that also gives them a chance for revenge against the man who burned them in Russia (add in some new ‘talented’ characters), and the story really takes off.
I enjoyed Playing With Fire. I was impressed with the seamless consistency, despite being written by two authors. Cris and Clare’s writing blended perfectly to showcase this underground urban world of thieves, hackers, grifters, shapeshifters and magic wielders. The supporting cast of Grace, Carlos, and Rook, were my favorites. They were all highly entertaining and endearing each in their own way. Renee and Stone have a lot of backstory and potential. Yet, even though they are the main focus of the story, neither felt completely fleshed out to me. As much as I wanted to, I had trouble feeling the chemistry between them. Renee was so cool, calm, and collected. Her constant stoicism lent her a sense of woodenness that carried over into their romantic moments. The tidbits dropped in about Renee’s past and her family were interesting, but were just shy of rounding her out. I did find it easier to feel Stone’s protectiveness and love for her, and found him to be the more compelling character of the two. He showed some growth and dimensions that Renee did not. Though her unflappable demeanor does go well with her character, her lack of passion (not just for Stone) made her feel a bit flat to me. It could also be my own preference. I’m usually drawn to more character-driven novels rather than plot-driven, and the risky theft of a magical gem, that Stone and Renee are hired for, is definitely the driving force of this story.
The magical talents of the characters were believable and fit well into story world the authors created. I love how the series name (Criminal Elements) matches so perfectly. I wouldn’t have minded a little more explanation on the magic, but not having it didn’t deter from the story as the magic itself wasn’t the main focus. It was just one of the many tools used by our gifted thieves to get the job done. The dialogue was spot-on for each character and any interaction with Rook was always amusing. One thing that stood out to me as a negative was the amount of time spent in planning the job. There is a lot of back and forth between the characters in this regard. It was interesting at first, and those who enjoy strategy will probably find it more so. For me, though, I was itching for action and ready for them to move on from planning to doing. Perhaps this made the actions scenes even more rewarding, as they were definitely my favorite parts. They were all suspenseful and well done.
Overall, Playing with Fire was an impressive and entertaining debut novel. The ending was satisfying but left just enough open to bring you back to find out where the story is going next. Book 2 is coming out soon, so we don’t have long to wait!