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REVIEW: Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson


The city of Leiodare is unlike any other in the post-climate change United States. Within its boundaries, birds are outlawed and what was once a crater in Appalachia is now a tropical, glittering metropolis where Anna Armour is waiting. An artist by passion and a factory worker by trade, Anna is a woman of special gifts. She has chosen this beautiful, traumatized city to wait for the woman she’s lost, the one she believes can save her from her troubled past and uncertain future. When one night Anna creates life out of thin air and desperation, no one is prepared for what comes next-not Lucine, a smooth talking soothsayer with plans for the city; Lucine’s brother Eugenio who has designs of his own; Seife, a star performer in the Leiodaran cosmos; or Rory, a forefather of the city who’s lived through outbreak, heartbreak, and scandal. Told through their interlocking stories, Smoketown delves into the invisible connections that rival magic, and the cost of redemption.

Dear Ms. Johnson:

This book is published by Blind Eye Books, which alone was sufficient recommendation for me to start reading it. I think of it as a fantasy with the elements of ff romance. If you are looking for explicit ff romance, look elsewhere, but if you have read other books by this publisher, you know that they do not usually publish the stories with explicit sex in it, be it ff or mm, so it should not come as a surprise.

Smoketown by Tenea D. JohnsonThe blurb tells us that Anna is hoping to be reunited with the woman she loved, they are apart for the vast majority of the story and in fact we do not see Anna’s beloved anywhere but in her memories for the most of the story. I think the book shows Anna’s longing for her very well, but I do not feel like we got to know that woman well at all, so in the end  I actually was not that satisfied by the romantic angle, it is probably because I did not see them together long enough to feel romantic chemistry between them, but again if they were together before that time comes in the story, the story would have been completely different. I am trying to evaluate the book which was written, not the book I wanted it to be and for this story them being apart worked for the plot, but not for my emotions if that makes sense. I actually liked Anna’s chemistry with another character a lot.
If I think about this story as a fantasy with romantic elements however, everything worked much better for me. I guess the reason why I struggled initially with lack of romance is because Anna’s love so clearly drives her actions, but the object of her love is not there. Anna also has powers which I actually do not remember seeing in fantasy for quite some time, I would say her powers have a mythological basis, but I am not going to tell you what they are because it would be spoilerish. I  really like how blurb describes her powers – complete truth, but not 100% openness.
“Anna focused past the image of herself and onto the city. Already the night looked lighter, as if dawn were a short nap away and here she sat, a crime on her lap and unleashed power in her hands”

The world building is fascinating. I was immersed in the city of Leodaire and what it and its people were going through almost from the beginning. The city of Leodaire outlawed birds because of something that happened in the recent history of the city. The writer took an event that could and did happen in reality and more than once and took the consequences in the interesting direction. Mythology, magic, public health issues are all mixed together in this story and I really liked the result.
There are not that many characters in this book, who played important part in the story – most of them are named in the blurb, if you do not count the whole city of Leodaire as a character, and while initially it seems that they have no relation to each other, very slowly we see that they are connected to each other and city of Leodaire. I loved that the author was revealing the connection slowly and that it all made sense, it did not feel forced at all.

I wanted to talk about the other characters some more. I wanted to talk about how exactly Eugenio and Lucine met, and how their skills end up helping the city. I wanted to talk about Rory’s pain, and him doing the right thing at the end, but I realized that the actual talk about each of those characters would actually end up being a pretty big spoiler and I decided not to do that.
The characters each had not exactly a secret, but maybe a small mystery behind them, which are  first hinted at and then revealed in each individual’s “song” which is played in the main symphony. I say “song” not because every character in the book was singing, but because at time the writing felt very musical and very passionate to me.
“Foreign words that she and Peru had learned together, virtus that they had completed, other people’s dreams and nightmares upon which they’d spent their youth and bankrolled their adventures bubbled up from her despair and popped behind her eyes in brilliant flashes of color, as if she had a migraine unrivaled by any in her past”.
I truly did feel that city of Leodaire was a living breathing thing in this book; city which was still hurting from the traumatic event of its past and which finally started healing at the end of the book.
I really loved how the hope and darkness are both present in this story and that hope eventually prevails.

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Sirius started reading books when she was four and reading and discussing books is still her favorite hobby. One of her very favorite gay romances is Tamara Allen’s Whistling in the Dark. In fact, she loves every book written by Tamara Allen. Amongst her other favorite romance writers are Ginn Hale, Nicole Kimberling, Josephine Myles, Taylor V. Donovan and many others. Sirius’ other favorite genres are scifi, mystery and Russian classics. Sirius also loves travelling, watching movies and long slow walks.


  1. cleo
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:05:09

    This sounds good. What’s the grade? It’s not showing on my screen.

  2. JL
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:37:27

    Good world-building, f/f and not heavy on the romance… could this book be the answer to my reading rut? I’m going to buy it and find out! I’m so sick of struggling to find m/m and f/f books that aren’t heavy on the sex. And, frankly, I’m excited to hear about a UF that is more focused on world-building than romance. I’m glad you mentioned the publisher. It’s one that I’ve not heard of before but am excited to check out. Thanks for this review!

  3. Sunita
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 12:47:15

    @cleo: I’m pretty sure it’s a B; that’s the tag it has at the top (under the post heading).

    I’m so glad you reviewed this, Sirius! I’ve been eyeing it at BEB for a while. It sounds great, and even if it’s light on the romance, I can live with that given the other strengths.

  4. Janine
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:54:37

    Sirius, thanks for reviewing this one. I’ve been looking at it on the BEB website for quite a while too. I read Tenea D. Johnson’s short stories in the two Tangle anthologies and reviewed both for DA. I recall thinking her prose style was lovely and the worldbuilding good, but apart from the main character in each story, the other characters (including the love interests) were sketchy and not well-developed. I ultimately couldn’t connect to any relationship in either Release in A Minor or Dead and the President because of it, and I graded both stories in the C range.

    Since the other aspects of Johnson’s writing are very good, I keep hoping that the sketchiness of the characters has to do with the length of the stories I read. I also have this thing for bird imagery, anything to do with wings and feathers, especially when it comes to the fantasy genre.

    So… do you think this would appeal to me more than her shorts did? Given the price, I need to be fairy confident of that before I purchase.

  5. Sirius
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 19:56:56

    Hi Janine – I honestly have no idea, I was about to say that I have not read her shorts, but I have read Tangle anthology (m/m one) and do not remember hers at all. I mean, I can tell you that here love interest probably was not well developed – since she was not there for the most of the story and Anna’s memories were not enough for me. At the same time the other three or four characters who IMO were important enough for the story were well enough developed for me for the secondary characters. Sorry, not sure. I can loan it to you if you wish.

  6. Sirius
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 20:00:30

    @cleo: B, sorry.

  7. Sirius
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 20:02:14

    @JL: This publisher is heavy on the story and light on sex – one of the reasons why I like them so much. Maybe they will be the answer to what you want right now :). You have not read anything published by them? Do! How about Rifter by Ginn Hale for example?

  8. Sirius
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 20:03:18

  9. JL
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 23:29:59

    I’ve never heard of this publisher at all until this review. I’m so glad you’ve brought it to my attention. I’ll add Ginn Hale to my list, too!

  10. Sunita
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 07:08:50

    @JL: We have a number of reviews of Ginn Hale’s books on the site. If you search by her name they should come up. Janine and I reviewed the first part of her serial novel, The Rifter, together, and then I reviewed another set of installments. And Janine has a great review of Wicked Gentleman too.

    Both Sirius and I are huge fans of Blind Eye Books. Nicole Kimberling is also an author and writes fun, witty m/m mysteries set in Bellingham, Washington. I think there’s a short review of one of them by me somewhere on here too. Enjoy!

  11. Sirius
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 07:47:49

    Oh JL the only “issue” I have with this publisher is that I want more books from them – which is of course not really an issue. It is me being a really selfish customer, even though I of course understand that probably because they are so small they can pay so much attention to quality of their books. If you ever end buying Ginn Hale’s Rifter in paperback ( as I recently did) or anthology Irregulars that they did last year or ” Strange fortune” by Josh Lanyon or any book they do you will see how much pleasure it is to hold those books in your hands. The covers, the page numbers, the pretty little thingies on each page I have no idea what they called – I love those books. Ginn Hale ‘s books – I can recommend any of them :). Yeah, I love what this publisher does in case it is not clear yet and I almost do not buy paperbacks anymore :)

  12. Janine
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:50:40

    @Sirius: Thanks! I may take you up on that offer when I have less to read on my plate, because from your description it does sound like I might like this book better than Johnson’s short stories.

    Her story in the Tangle XY was really brief, so I’m not surprised you’ve forgotten it. The one in Tangle Girls was longer, but actually less successful for me.

  13. Janine
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:54:37

    @JL: Wicked Gentelmen is my favorite thing by Ginn Hale (Lord of the White Hell didn’t grab me and I ran into problems with The Rifter after loving the first few installments which I reviewed with Sunita), and I think it’s also the least expensive of her books, so a great starting place.

    I’ve also heard great things about The Irregulars (an anthology of related paranormal novellas by four different authors that came out last year) but I still need to read that.

  14. JL
    May 01, 2013 @ 14:26:17

    Bellingham has a special place in my heart! More to the list.

    Thank you Sunita, Sirius and Janine for all the book recs. I feel like I’ve just won the reading lottery :)

  15. Sirius
    May 01, 2013 @ 21:36:27

    @JL: Oh if you end up enjoying Ginn Hale’s and Nicole Kimberling’s books I would consider my mission accomplished :-). I honestly believe that they are amongst the best mm writers out there. I think their writing is very good.

  16. Sirius
    May 01, 2013 @ 21:40:28

    @Janine: Sure, just remind me :).

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