Nico Azertiran is a soft-hearted romantic who loves love and HEAs. The problem? As an incubus whose magic is based in love and not lust, he’s seen as worthless. After being kicked out of his clan, Nico works hard as a cherub-in-training at Cupid’s Inc. Since these creatures are all about bringing love and happiness, he should fit in, no problem! Unfortunately, being a cherub isn’t what Nico thought it would be, and it’s not just Nico’s 7-foot tall frame and inability to shoot straight with a baby bow and arrow that make him an outcast to the toddler-sized cherubs. Even among creatures whose potions use love magic, Nico is still ostracized and set up for failure as his magic is stronger and draws soulmates together, which doesn’t fit the “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” type of love the cherubs peddle (or the company’s bottom line).
When Nico is tapped to test a prototype arrow, he’s less than pleased. When he discovers his love-struck list victim target is the arrogant and rude warden Sir Flambeau Illume, he’s incensed…and terrified. Having been on the receiving end of Flame’s sharp tongue and informed of the warden’s EXTREME lack of desire and consent to be on the cherubs’ target list (and existence of a restraining order), Nico is stuck between the desire to keep his job and his desire to do the right thing. However, Fate takes the choice out of his hands, and Nico finds himself literally stuck to the irascible, cherub-hating warden.
As a 748-year-old phoenix shifter whose every attempt at romantic love failed, Flame long ago embraced his heartless, arrogant persona and focused his efforts on becoming First Knight. Being constantly bombarded with love potion-dipped arrows that don’t work on him and remind him of that failure is the worst thing he can imagine. Being trussed up to a civilian and forced to break various regulations and protocols during a murder investigation while the position for First Knight is vacant for the first time in three centuries makes him wish for a better imagination and permission to burn Cupid Inc. to the ground. Grudgingly, Flame soon finds himself softening towards the confoundingly sweet and innocent Nico, and when the incubus becomes a target himself, the growing intensity of his feelings surprises him. Yet, Flame can’t let himself hope because, while being one of the rarest, most powerful shifter species comes with many benefits and abilities, it also comes at a high personal cost. For Flame, keeping Nico alive and finding the murderer is much, much easier than finding love.
I love the creative and irreverent world building in Meghan Maslow’s Starfig Investigations series, and she brings some of that magic to Must Love Demons, her contribution to the Magic Emporium collection. The stories are written by various authors with each book being a standalone connected by a shop called Marden’s Magic Emporium that appears anywhere (Room of Requirement style), but only once and only to those in dire need. Nico has personal knowledge of the shop as a previous employee, which comes in handy when the door pops up. Overall, the story is fun, filled with quirky characters and Maslow’s trademark creature archetype-upending (including boozy, chain-smoking cherubs). I truly enjoyed Maslow’s conceptualization of Cupid’s targets—maintaining the madcap, random, and forced nature of being hit with a love potion while also giving it a semblance of order and a reason Flame is constantly shot. A target’s name simply appears on the love-struck list, and a cherub is assigned to shoot that person. As a phoenix shifter, Flame’s healing abilities keep potions and poisons from having their intended effect; thus, he remains on the list. The story is also full of WTF shenanigans and takes place over only a few days with one mishap leading to another misadventure, more murders, and more mayhem. However, as busy as that sounds, the dual, first person POV helps balance the daily crazy of the plot with character moments that develop the relationship and provide clues to who the MCs are.
Nico is the proverbial square peg surrounded by round holes—an incubus who finds people their perfect matches instead of inspiring lust in strangers and who dislikes casual sex; a 7-foot-tall demon with a big heart and shy disposition who’s discomfited by the attention his looks attract; a creature who can give the gift of love to others, but who cannot use the gift for himself, nor get others to see beyond his incubus heritage to get to know him. Nico is simply a doll who is too good for this world…and for Sir Flame, an unrepentant asshole. He’s adorable and even when growly comes across as dangerous as a kitten. It’s hard not to adore Nico and sympathize with him; there’s a scene in which Nico is walking through the wardens’ equivalent to a police station bullpen that just pulls at the heartstrings because it conveys so much about Nico’s life and temperament, and how different he is from Sir Flame who epitomizes confidence and bad attitude. From the moment Flame stalks onto the page with his Karen vibes dialed up to 11, he’s throwing out ill-tempered, off-putting words. Flame basically steamrollers poor Nico and slaps him with the ‘I demand to speak to your manager boss’ customer service fave. Even in a situation when he should be at his most sympathetic (demanding they stop hunting him and bombarding him with arrows), he was being such a prick I felt like a daily arrow to the bum was the least he deserved.
To be fair, Flame is good for Nico because being constantly exposed to Flame’s abrasive, no-clucks given attitude eventually irritates Nico enough to start standing up for himself and to take Flame’s sparing positive comments as truth rather than baseless flattery inspired by his appeal. As a couple, they do balance one another out nicely, but for some reason I just could not feel their connection. By the end of the book, I was still like, “ok, if you’re sure that’s what you want.” Honestly, I just had a perpetual kernel of dislike for Flame that probably has more to do with my distaste of and discomfort with people in power being unmindful of how they wield it. I don’t mind wanker characters, but Flame’s power as a law enforcement officer and his first appearance being textbook Entitled Douchebaggery 101, combined with the way he continually intimidated and berated Nico, keeping him so anxious that first day (especially since Flame decides early on not to fault Nico and notices of how soft/kind he seems) was a bit much for me.
Personally, I just couldn’t get past that enough to give him his textual ‘being a jerk to protect his heart’ emotional pass, and I can’t tell if that colored my reaction to the Mastermind Revelation, or if I was a bit underwhelmed because I was expecting it. The villainy was purposefully ridiculous and silly and fit with the story, but the full impact of the satirical punch just didn’t land for me. Yet, Must Love Demons is a charming and entertaining read. If you think you’ll enjoy an incubus who prefers hand holding and sunset walks on the beach to raging lust, a grumpy fire peacock with a soft spot for cats, terrible dwarfish poetry, sociopathic socialites who play slingshot paintball and unwanted love matches, I recommend Must Love Demons.