Review: Karina Halle’s The Artists Trilogy

So when you review an entire trilogy at once, it’s kind of hard to avoid spoilers. I did my best, but consider yourself warned.

A while ago, I was looking for book recommendations, despite the massive amounts of books I’ve already got on my TBR pile. I picked up Sins and Needles, the first book in Karina Halle’s The Artists Trilogy, after a friend of mine raved about her other series, Experiment in Terror. Con artists? Tattoos? Sweet.

Ellie rolls into Palm Valley, California, with thoughts of going straight after her last con saw her running for her life. She’ll stay with her uncle, find a job, and figure out what the hell she’s supposed to do next. Only her uncle doesn’t want her in his house and there are no jobs to be had in the desert town she spent her high school years in.

When she runs into Camden, an old friend from high school, she doesn’t set out to rob him. It’s only after she sees how successful his tattoo business is that her mind shifts from thoughts of legitimacy to one last job. Desperate and down to her last twenty bucks, she’s hoping Camden’s still infatuated with her, and that those feelings will make him blind to what she’s really trying to do.

Too bad for her he catches her breaking into his safe.

The minute he does, Ellie realizes Camden’s not the same guy she knew. This Camden’s personality is harder and more volatile to go with the tattoos covering his skin. He blackmails her into helping him out of the life he’s trapped in and setting up a new one, but before they can put their plan into action, Ellie’s past catches up with them.

And it stays. It drags Ellie back to Mississippi, then to Mexico, seemingly held hostage by Javier, her ex, who claims he only wants to help her get revenge on the man responsible for scarring her leg as a child. Convinced Ellie’s being held against her will, Camden goes after her with the help of Gus, a family friend of Ellie’s. A bad situation goes to shit when Javier’s carefully constructed plan for vengeance collapses around Ellie and Camden, and the three of them race through Mexico to get Javier’s sister out of danger and then to Honduras to rescue Gus.

The Ellie we meet at the beginning of Sins and Needles isn’t the Ellie we’re left with at the end of Bold Tricks. She uncertain, tired, confident something will pop up, eager to do the right thing for once, and morphs into someone who has taken her knocks and come out harder for them. She falters somewhat in Shooting Scars; the certainty that Camden will come for her erodes too quickly, and while I could understand why she made some of the choices she did, and felt they fit with who she’d been and who she was becoming, others didn’t sit well. Case in point: Javier.

I dislike love triangles. Too often they add unnecessary drama and are an overused device to drive a wedge between the hero and the heroine. The triangle doesn’t come into play until Shooting Scars, and this one left me with a squicky feeling. It wasn’t that Gus had warned Camden that Ellie being stuck with Javier could very well turn into Stockholm Syndrome on steroids – I didn’t see enough evidence of Ellie being sympathetic toward Javier for that to play off for me. It’s just there was already so much tension and drama that throwing this in there only dragged the story to a place it could have avoided, and it made Shooting Scars the weakest of the three books. I thought Ellie was strong enough to resist Javier pulling her down again. Even after she slips up the first time, it could have been a one time, heat of the moment thing that tore her up inside. Instead, she fell farther down the rabbit hole.

What saved it was Camden. I loved his point of view, watching him change and how each new wound built up scar tissue around his heart. He says he keeps getting shit on, and he’s right. But that doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing. The beauty of it is you don’t know if it’s out of duty or for love, because that scar tissue? It’s some fucking tough stuff. The hole Ellie dug for herself wasn’t one Camden was going to help her out of. He was going to stand at the edge, arms crossed, waiting to see what she would do.

The one thing I did like about the love triangle was the impact it had on Camden. Just because your heart gets shredded and tossed in the meat grinder doesn’t mean it’s not still beating. And his kept beating through the pain and grief Ellie and her choices had caused him. He found the strength to glue it back together and hold it out for her to take once more. I wish we’d gotten to hear his point of view in Bold Tricks; I wanted to see some of those scenes through his eyes, waking up and not being able to find Ellie in the Honduran jungle, his loathing as he fucks her in the bathroom at the gas station, I wanted more from him.

Javier…I’m not sure what to think about Javier. We’re never in his head. We never really know if he’s telling the truth or if he’s lying through his teeth. Sometimes it’s aggravating, but I think that’s kind of the point.

The thing about The Artists Trilogy is you can’t tell this story in just one book. It’s too sprawling. It’s too complex, and it has a lot of ground to cover, and Ellie has a long, long way to go to redeem herself. You could call it a romance, but it’s not a label that fits it comfortably. It’s a story of vengeance, suspense, obsession and how it can be mistaken for love. It’s not really until Bold Tricks that it you latch on to the idea that it really is about Ellie and Camden and the lengths they’d go to for one another. You see it in Sins and Needles, when Ellie walks away with Javier. You see it in Shooting Scars, when Camden’s ducking bullets on the Mexican highway as he races to Veracruz, trying to get to Ellie before she ends up dead. But you don’t really know, with that kind of absolute fucking certainty that they are meant for one another and they will walk through fire for one another, until the events of Bold Tricks. The last book in the trilogy is a grab you by the throat race through the jungle, and with each bullet crack, you flinch, wondering if this is where the story ends, a tragic tale of stunted redemption, or if Ellie and Camden will ride off into the sunset together.

I’ve gotta say, while the ending, both to Bold Tricks and The Artists Trilogy in general, was overall satisfying, there were a few hiccups in the last couple of chapters that just had me going “huh?” I think it was because there wasn’t much of a build up to it before, so when it happened, it just was like, hey, here I am!

But this was a well-paced, original, complicated love story, one that could have gone in a hundred different directions and still turned out fascinating. So why are you still reading this post? Go buy the damn books already.

Copies of Shooting Scars and Bold Tricks provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Bold Tricks releases October 15th and is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iBooks.

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