** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK FOR MY READING PLEASURE **
Copy received through Netgalley
Blood Pact (Youkai Bloodlines, 02) – Courtney Maguire
1st person POV, one character
Content Warning: demons, violence, gore, blood exchange, vampires
Blood Pact is the second book in the Youkai Bloodlines, which promises more books in the future. While I was disappointed in Book 1, Book 2 proved to be all the things I'd hoped for in Book 1 but never got. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Blood Pact makes a BETTER first book in the series.
Not only does this book fully explore the Youkai storyline and mythology, in a way that gives you an insight into what the world entails. There was very little, to no, worldbuilding of this in Book 1, and though Asagi – the main character from Book 1 – makes an appearance here, it's not so important that you would need to read Book 1 to understand their character. In fact, I barely recognised Asagi from the character that I loved, then learned to hate, in Book 1.
Hiro is our protagonist, and he's a geisha in a small okiya, where he plays the role of companion and singer. I had never heard of male geisha before, but I did a quick research and found that it was originally mostly, if not always, men who played the role of drinking companion, tea server and general entertainer at geisha houses. Hiro's role as geisha was nicely explored, in an organic way, that allowed us to learn what a male geisha was and wasn't expected to do in service. He was in no way a slave, as Asagi had been, but an orphan taken in and loved by the owner of the okiya, protected and cared for by the entire family of geisha workers.
At heart, Hiro is a cynic who believes he'll never find love, and he's never really craved it until he meets Sakurai.
Sakurai Hideyoshi is a lone Samurai with intense loyalty to his daimyo (his lord), and is at the end of a journey with his daimyo when he encounters Hiro. Told of a man who could make hearts weep, he travels to the okiya to see Hiro, and it's an instant connection. He stays, and returns, to see Hiro sing. Mysterious, closed-off, and contained, Sakurai is quite similar to how Yutaka began in Book 1. He's a professional soldier, a swordsman, and hides his feelings for Hiro.
As a professional swordsman, Hideyoshi hasn't left room in his life for emotions, but that all changes when he meets Hiro. He has no choice but to feel, even if he forces himself to hide it behind a wall.
Together, these two have off-the-charts chemistry. Something I'd been missing in Book 1. It was raw, intense and instant. From Hideyoshi's eyes, to Hiro's voice, there was always something going on between them. An exchange of electricity. At times, Hiro was the only one to openly express these feelings, but when Hideyoshi finally caved, it was well worth waiting for. He was very much an Alpha male, but with a softer, vulnerable side, and a past that made it hard to let softer feelings show. While this was Hiro's first experience of love, or relationships, he threw himself head-first into his bond with Hideyoshi, basking in the connection. Soaking up every scrap of affection Hideyoshi showed.
When a client gets too possessive of Hiro – the runner of a protection racket holding the daimyo to ransom – Hideyoshi wades in like a silent knight-in-shining-armour to save Hiro. Possessive, protective, and intensely jealous. When Hiro's world falls apart, he relies on Hideyoshi to give him some semblance of structure, home, and love. Unlike Book 1, Hiro begs to be made into Youkai, to enact his revenge. Something I thought should have happened in Book 1.
Here, Hiro is strong enough to see the truth of Hideyoshi – that he's Youkai, a monster, a demon – and not just accept it, but find strength in it. He accepts the terms of being made, accepts that he'll become a monster. And, even when regret comes along, he finds the strength to accept that it was his choice, made for his own reasons, and he can't regret the choice once made.
I utterly loved that Hiro's gift was his voice – both as a human, a geisha, and as a Youkai. The way that was woven into the story was lovely, and kept him true to his character all throughout the novel. He never changed as a character or in personality, but he GREW. Which was a huge difference to how Asagi changed throughout Book 1. Because, here Hiro went from a little helpless to growing into someone who gained freedom, independence, love and strength.
Hiro has all the fire, logic, grudging understanding of his choice and fate, that I wish Asagi had when they'd changed. I think this was partly because of who he was at his core, but also because Hideyoshi was a much clearer teacher. In Book 1, Mahiro tried to teach Asagi, but they were so adamant to maintain a victim they wouldn't allow it. Here, Hiro is eager to learn, willing to do as Hideyoshi instructs, and even when it's hard, he works to become someone who is strong, maintaining a constant loyalty to Hideyoshi.
Hiro is trusting, accepting, and open to anything Hideyoshi wants to teach him. Though he sometimes revels in the life of a Youkai, he also accepts that animals feed/hunt other animals to survive, and that's how he maintains as much of his humanity as he can. He accepts that Youkai are beasts locked within the minds of humans, and that there are certain things necessary evils required to tame the beast.
Though Hiro can be headstrong, Hideyoshi is the perfect counterbalance, personality wise. He's strong, detached, cold and calm at all times. He demands that, if Hiro is going to be Youkai, he'll live the life properly. From the start, he teaches Hiro how to be Youkai – kill, don't leave witnesses, be gentle, don't be cruel, and learn to be strong. He teaches Hiro how to fight as a human, as a Samurai, and gives him the information needed to survive the world of Youkai, humans and Hunters. Not only teaching him the limits and flexibilities of being Youkai, but how to protect himself, how to mentally prepare himself for the inevitable death and resurrection, and how to form a life he wants to return to.
Though the Youkai storyline didn't officially start until 17%, it was MUCH earlier than Book 1, which meant it gave us plenty of time for Hideyoshi to teach Hiro – and the reader – the necessary worldbuilding of what being Youkai meant. This was something I found SERIOUSLY lacking in Book 1, which is why I think this book makes a better foundation story. It tells you everything that I found lacking/missing in Book 1, but which is vital to the series development.
Asagi does make an appearance, at 41%. However, though he appears, there's no timeline to tell us how long it's been since the end of Book 1. There is no mention of Mahiro, Yutaka or anyone else Asagi was supposed to be with. But, Hideyoshi calls Asagi a snake – which was jarring, at first, because it tells us that Asagi has somehow, suddenly become a villain. A vicious, cold, controlling Youkai, who tries to control all Youkai with their ability to provide a name. Just as Mahiro did for Asagi, they've begun using the Arakawa name Mahiro gave them to hold leverage over Youkai.
I had a real problem with Asagi's character, again. I came to hate them, by the end of Book 1, but seeing them here just reinforces that feeling. The old Asagi would never have heard Hiro was a geisha and sneeringly deemed him a whore, so disgusted and dismissive of him. This Asagi is cruel and judgmental, controlling and arrogant. Despite sneering at Hiro, suggesting Hiro wants to become King of Youkai, it comes across that Asagi already thought they held that position, and it's clear in the way they behave. Sadly, their behaviour here reinforces the dislike from Book 1.
What disappointed me was that Asagi keeps all of his food-sources alive, effectively enslaving them to him, emotionally. Despite having been a slave, and being adamant that they're family not slaves, I agree with Hideyoshi, that being compelled and enthralled to provide blood to them, and almost in love with them because of the bond, is as good as slavery. Especially when he (presumably, from his actions in Book 1) includes children in his 'family'. The only good thing about it is that it provides a counterbalance to Hideyoshi's decision to kill all donors/victims.
Thankfully, Hiro and Hideyoshi were shining lights in the book, detracting from the bitter taste Asagi's appearances left. Both Hiro and Hideyoshi make mistakes throughout the novel, but neither are afraid to admit it. They both see the error of their ways, at some point, acknowledge it, and try to correct those mistakes or at least admit they should be better.
No matter what they face, they stick together at all times, strong and supportive. They love fiercely but in an almost subtle way, where it's contained and private. They feed off each other's energy and are a constant support for each other.
There are far less issues with this book than there were with Book 1. I almost felt like the author had noticed the same issues I found, and worked to address them. There was far less modern slang, which meant I could submerge myself in the historical period far easier.
I still found it laborious to keep skipping back and forth between the glossary, when it wasn't clear within the text what the word stood for. There were also instances where a word or phrase appeared in the novel, but appeared different in the glossary, or instances where the Japanese term was instantly followed by the English meaning, which made little sense – e.g. “Shitsureishimasu” appeared in the book as one word, but in the glossary as two. Also, “Kikentai no ichi. Sword, soul, and body are one.” appeared in the novel, when the English words are listed in the glossary as the exact meaning of the Japanese phrase. This felt unnecessary. Either choose to use the glossary, or just use the English terms, if you prefer, but make a choice.
At 60%, there was a small formatting issue, where there were a few empty lines between paragraphs, for no reason I could see. It wasn't a scene change, and it seemed like an accidental addition.
There was a very clear animosity between Hideyoshi and Asagi, but it was never explained why or how that came around. It was hinted that there was a long history between them, perhaps that Asagi may have been his maker, but it was never cleared up, leaving a huge plot hole. Considering there were many plot holes in Book 1, that I hoped would be solved in this book but weren't, it may be another one of those unanswered questions that are never resolved.
I was a bit annoyed there was no timeline. There's nothing to tell us what separates this book from Book 1. Is it 1, 5, 20, or 50 years later? There's no indication, because the only character from Book 1 who makes an appearance is Asagi, who is effectively an immortal Youkai. Despite claiming he'd return to Mahiro, neither he nor Yutaka make an appearance, which doesn't help orientate us in the timeline.
The chemistry here was more akin to the “deep and profound love” that was promised, but never delivered in Book 1. I FELT every moment, from when Sakurai and Hiro first met.
As they begin a relationship, Hiro takes to calling Sakurai by his first name – Hideyoshi – or shortening it to 'Hide'. But, that was often confusing, when reading. Hide and Hiro are so similar – the same size and shape – that it became difficult to separate the mentions, at times.
I'm glad I took the risk of reading Book 2, after being disappointed by Book 1. This is everything that I wanted Book 1 to be, but wasn't. Honestly, if I'd never read Book 1, I don't feel like it would have made any difference. I might even have enjoyed this book more because I wouldn't have come with expectations made by Book 1. Blood Pact actually made for a much stronger first book in the series, giving us all the background, worldbuilding and chemistry that was missing from Book 1.
Here, we're introduced to WHAT the Youkai are, what their limits, advantages are and how many there are. We're shown the history and extent of the Hunters, of what they do, why and what it means for the Youkai. We're also given proper insight into how the Youkai and Hunters interact with each other.
I feel sorry for the people who felt as I did about Book 1, and didn't take the risk of reading this book, because it is far superior in terms of plotting, execution, and consistency. But, honestly, if I hadn't already been approved by Netgalley, even I might not have bothered continuing. Whereas, now, I'm tempted to try Book 3, because Book 2 really proved so much stronger than Book 1. The story had some flaws, as did Book 1, but it also resolved issues that I'd found fault with in that book.
HOWEVER, I want to add a note for the author/publisher, because it annoys me.
I find it frustrating that there are TEN pages of advertising throughout the novel. Twice, for the SAME book. SIX pages of a preview for that book, which is the same one previewed in Book 1. I also find it strange that they're dedicating so much space to an MF story, in an MM book.
It annoys me, because there are things I wanted to see resolved in this book, as well as Book 1, which would have made better use of those sixteen pages. It also left me hopeful, at 93%, that there was more story to come, except when I turned the page it was suddenly finished.
“The world is full of ugly things, Hiro. Sometimes it helps to be in the presence of something beautiful.”
“In those moments, it was as if I knew him. Knew him in a more profound way than he could ever express. I tasted his bitterness, his regret, his deep loneliness. I saw the man behind the hard mask, the one he'd worn for so long it had grown into his skin.”