After the gigantic mess that was BOLD TRICKS, I was leery about starting the Dirty Angels series, which is a spinoff centering around Javier Bernal. By the end of The Artists trilogy, I was completely burned out on Camden and Ellie and resentful about what Halle had done to Javier's character arc in order to wrest a way-too-happy ending for a couple I couldn't root for. I ranted about this in my review of BOLD TRICKS, but in order to push Ellie and Camden together, Halle worked hard to make Javier seem cartoonishly cruel, incompetent, and cowardly, despite three prior books making it clear that this was not the case, making the last book feel fanfictiony and dialed-in.
DIRTY ANGELS is a much, much, much better book. I can't emphasize that enough. Everything I didn't like about BOLD TRICKS was fixed in DIRTY ANGELS, and Javier ends up seeming like an older, crueler, and more jaded version of the Javier we loved to hate in ON EVERY STREET. It's set several years after BOLD TRICKS. Javier, despite being screwed over by Ellie and having his heart stomped all over and then shot, has managed to rebuild his narco empire and become a truly powerful and terrible force in Mexico.
Luisa is the wife of a rival cartel boss named Salvador. She was previously a beauty queen, but gave up that path to work in a restaurant in order to care for her older disabled parents. She married Salvador to provide for them but ended up trading the frying pan for the fire, as she now lives a life of debasement and abuse. When she tries to escape her husband, she ends up getting kidnapped by Javier's men and is taken to their compound where they plan to torture her to extort Salvador. Luisa is a much different heroine than Ellie: she's softer and more vulnerable, but there's a core of steel in her, too. I liked her a lot, even when she started making some self-destructive and dumb decisions.
This is a pretty brutal romance, and has rape and graphic torture in it. It actually reminded me a lot of the second book in The Artists series, SHOOTING SCARS, which was my favorite book in the trilogy. All the characters in this book do horrible things, but they do it for believable reasons, and it makes the book feel gritty and real in a way that a lot of these so-called dark romances don't. You can definitely feel the stakes weighing down on the characters at all times- I honestly couldn't put this book down. I love a good villain romance and Javier didn't disappoint, and Luisa's slow transformation to the dark side was really well done. I saw someone call them the Mexican Joker and Harley Quinn, and that's a good description, although the Joker never really cared for Harley beyond a passing amusement, whereas Javier obviously does care for Luisa in some way.
The only thing I didn't like about this book is the "content warning" or whatever you call it on the Goodreads blurb. I think it's supposed to be funny, but it comes off as mean-spirited and bratty, in my opinion.
I can't wait to read the other books in this series. Javier Bernal has been, and always will be, my favorite hero in the Karina Halle universe.
4 to 4.5 stars