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REVIEW: The Smoke Thief by Shana Abé

The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe

Smoke on the Water – The Smoke Thief

My dearest Romancelandia,

A few reviews back I told you, in no uncertain terms, that dragons didn’t do it for me in, y’know, a sex way.

Well, it turns out I was completely and utterly and comprehensively wrong.

Yours, in his bunk,
AJH

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of things around here, something happens that reminds me I still need my L-plates. The first chapter of The Smoke Thief introduces us to a sixteen year old shithead who is idly watching our heroine, Rue, as she gets into trouble with some mean girls. Later, we learn that he’s the alpha dragon in these parts and Rue has a crush on him, but he’s too busy banging other people to notice. When Rue vanishes, and is presumed dead by the tribe, I genuinely spent a few chapters believing that she was going to meet someone else (someone who, perchance, wasn’t a shithead), in basic recognition of the fact that the person you sorta fancied when you were fourteen is never going to be ideal life-partner material because, hello, you were fourteen and they were probably a shithead.

Anyway, this was incredibly wrong. The shithead was the hero, the heroine was in love with him all along, and that was totally okay, and they were meant to be together and blah blah blah. And, hum, I bet everyone else saw that coming a mile off. Personal genre recalibrations aside, I did really enjoy The Smoke Thief and I am now a fully paid up, card carrying member of the ‘dragons are hot’ club. Do we get badges? The last dragon-themed romance I read was Dragon Actually, and wangs aside, I didn’t get much sense of the reality of dragons from that book. Yes, they were very big and scaly, but I didn’t quite believe in them somehow, or develop a conception of them as being as meaningfully distinct from humans. To put it another way, Tolkein would probably have said they approached dracognitas rather than true draco. In The Smoke Thief, however, the sheer glorious awesome of being a dragon is given plenty of attention. I apologise, this is going to be a long quote but I didn’t have the heart to cut, well, any of it:

Ah. Her first breath was like inhaling snow, fiercely cold, sending light and energy through her entire being … She lifted her head and stole her second, delicious breath, bounding across the firmament, a phantom creature that matched the sun and those purer clouds: her body pearl white, her scales rimmed in gold.

The drákon were sleeker than the depictions that survived in medieval tapestries and texts … living flame and speed and gilded wings that mastered the wind. No wonder the Others had rendered them so clumsy in their fables; in true life their radiance was almost incomprehensible, splinters of sky, as fatal and glorious as a hail of firelit arrows. (pg. 69)

I think even Tolkein would have to admit: that, my friends, is sheer draco.

To be honest, my most dominant reaction to The Smoke Thief was ‘holy shit, this is beautifully written’. I’ve discussed this a bit before in comments, and I’ll try not self-derail, but I tend to feel that writing quality is often far more subjective than people are willing to credit. At least, once you get beyond the basics of getting the words in the right order. I have often caught myself levelling somewhat arbitrary charges of being ‘badly written’ at books I don’t like, or want to feel in some way superior to, so I’ve consciously tried to find a reading space that allows me to respond positively to what I feel might be ‘good’ writing, while also preventing me from leaping gleefully onto my high horse over things that simply aren’t expressed the way I would necessarily express them. Therefore, when I say The Smoke Thief is gorgeous, I mean not only were the words placed coherently on the page in the generally approved fashion but they were so strikingly arranged thereupon that they stirred me from my stew of careful neutrality and I actually noticed them. And this is a big deal for me.

The sheer loveliness of the writing saturates the whole book. Your mileage may vary because, for some people, it could stray a bit too close to purple but, frankly, I like that colour. I mean we are talking a deep, rich indigo here, not your Grandmother’s lavender pot-pourri. I honestly think I read it in a sort of swoon, reeling from page to page like a summer-drunk drone, finding myself bizarrely interested in the sort of things I confess I usually skip, like the colour of heroine’s frock or how hot the hero looks with his kit off:

The Marquess of Langford, with his remote composure and his eyes hooded green, no human modesty, no shame. He was drákon, and Rue realised now that she had never seen it so clearly in anyone until this moment: not mortal, not weak, but something ancient and formidable, barely bound in the sinew and grace of a man’s unclothed body. (p. 73)

Ngh. The words, the words, they are so very pretty, I just want to roll around in them, purring. It’s a good job I’m already in my bunk.

The Smoke Thief is set in a sort of alt-Georgian England, except with dragons. They’re able to blend into society by taking human form but they live by very different rules within their own tribe. I really loved the setting – I mean dragons and women in fabulous gowns and men in high heels, my buttons, they are so pressed right now. What worked particularly well for me was the blending of fantasy and history, so there was a sense of familiarity as well as difference. This gave the world a degree of natural depth, without either making everything generic or requiring masses of detailing, although, truthfully, I could have done with just a touch more exposition because I still have no idea what’s going on with the drákon, where they came from, what they’re doing, and how their society is supposed to work. However, unlike Dragon Actually, I read it as deliberate obfuscation, rather than inadequate world building.

I actually found the fragmentary glimpses of the drákon somewhat troubling because much about their society seemed actively unpleasant and oppressive. Part of the plot revolves around recapturing this poor guy who tried to run away from it (he just wanted to play the violin and be free) and I felt absolutely terrible for him. Similarly, the heroine is on the lam from consistent ill-treatment, and a potential forced marriage with the hero, and I know Georgian England wasn’t exactly a walk in liberty park either, but I genuinely wasn’t sure how I was meant to feel about Rue having to go back and become part of this deeply horrible culture. And, in this respect, I almost felt the language of The Smoke Thief was a further obfuscation – everything is expressed with such lavish sensuality, it’s remarkably easy to get distracted by the pretty and ignore, or downplay, how nasty things actually seem to be. I suppose that’s fitting for a book about dragons, though, bedazzling, marvellous monsters that they are.

The main action of The Smoke Thief revolves around the adventures of Rue and Christoff as they chase a stolen diamond and he attempts to get her to marry him in the traditional romance hero manner of threats and blackmail (all these years, I’ve been doing it so wrong). The plot is deliciously twisty, involving both crocodiles and masquerade balls, and, for the most part, maintains a sensible balance between sexual tension and exciting adventures. Though, now I think about it, they do, at one point, stop to shag at a ball, rather than giving pursuit to the thief they’d come to the ball expressly in order to catch, which wouldn’t have been nearly so jarring if the rest of the book hadn’t woven the sexing and romance so effectively into the narrative tapestry. What did throw me, however, was the fact the book itself opens with what I can only describe as a detour into complete weirdness, which I shall attempt to share with you now. Deep breath…

So there’s this fairytale place and special people live there who, like, hear, diamonds and are totally magical and shit, but then Others come and are mean to them until they all run away, but they leave some of their kids and diamonds behind because, I don’t know, baggage handling requirements, and there’s this amazing castle that nobody can get into but then the Others eventually do get into it, and it’s full of amazingly hot, pale people who apparently spawned themselves Biblical style by some committed, hardcore incesting. So then the incest-dragons who live in a fairytale castle in the Carpathians become Feudal nobility, and it’s all groovy, but one of their diamonds has turned evil, and people are starting to get pissed off because Feudalism is not a sensible system of government, yo, and then some random peasant nicks the evil diamond and a dragon princess, and things go bad, and it’s all bad, and the dragons start dying because … they do? Then the dragon princess arbitrarily kills the peasant and pegs it with the evil diamond, burying it under ground, before arbitrarily dying herself. And so all the dragons are dead and the evil diamond is buried, except it turns out there were other dragons somewhere else all along who are totally fine and not dead … and holy flaming prologue, Batman, what was any of that about?

I expect it’s probably about establishing the series premise but, ultimately, it’s still an entire prologue about some drákon who have nothing to do with the drákon in the book, and a diamond that also isn’t the diamond in the book. It is, however, testament to just how ludicrously lovely I found The Smoke Thief that my main reaction to this was not “what the hell, this is completely irrelevant” but, instead, “oh, this is beautiful, I like this, is there more?” And this isn’t a real whinge, it’s mainly bewilderment, and I will add that both the prologue and epilogue, with their slightly fairytale style, serve as gorgeous bookends to the main story.

As seems pretty typical for me, I found myself liking the heroine considerably more than the hero, although I also got the satisfying sense that they were very well matched, as they are both strong, clever and capable, without always being sympathetic. Having fled the drákon to avoid being forced into marriage with Christoff, Rue has made her career as a jewel thief, a wonderfully dragonish profession (and, incidentally, I just love how acquisitive and into shiny stuff the drákon are). Although much less openly aggressive than Christoff, she is, in her subtler way, just as savage, sharp and ruthless as he is and I liked the way the power balance remained pretty equal between the two of them, despite Christoff’s constant attempts to tip it in his favour. I also felt they both came across as distinctly paranormal creatures, not merely as humans with extras. Their morality, their passions and their values seemed noticeably (and, occasionally, unpleasantly) their own; and their ability to shift from human, to smoke, to dragon is portrayed as being inextricable from who they are, and plays an important role in their developing relationship.

Christoff, however, I wavered on. I will admit the language sort of seduced me into being into him and there’s enough vulnerability there to lend sympathy to some of his more alphatastic behaviour. It’s a bit ‘poor little all-powerful uber-dragon’ but he’s just as trapped by his role, and the expectations of it, as anyone else in his world:

He thought of all the times he’d wanted to run himself, to escape Darkfrith. He looked out at the stars thrown cross the cold sky and envy of [Rue] speared through him bright as pain – just a flash, and then he smothered it. (p. 39)

And, although he’s relentless in his pursuit of Rue, he’s driven as much by his loneliness as by, y’know, his overwhelming manly need to possess her:

But, beneath his look was something even worse. Beneath it was something that flickered and caught in her chest, tenderness and recognition and a sparse, empty ache that seemed to penetrate her very being. (p. 139)

There’s no denying he’s kind of a dick a lot of the time, and the bit when he threatens to murder a child unless Rue marries him is kind of a nadir even for a dragon operating under a different set of moral values, but he’s also clearly a rather sad and stifled dick, which made him slightly more bearable than is probably right or fair. Towards the end of the book, I was even starting to feel he might be about to change and grow as a person:

He was tired of her hostility. He was tired of trying to woo and manage her at once. She was too intelligent for blandishments and too independent to bow to his will just because he wanted her to. (p. 169)

Oh, yes, Christoff! Yes! Well done. You’ve finally noticed that Rue is a real person, with wants and needs that may be divergent from your own. Good on you, my lad, good on you. Perhaps you should, y’know, try actually talking to her? But then, literally a handful of pages later as they get their dragon-bonk on behind a painted screen at a ball:

Rape or seduction. He would take either. (p. 186)

Picard Facepalm

Bad dragon. No biscuit. I think what really confused me about this line was that it came out of nowhere, like a cartoon anvil, when they were already having perfectly consensual sex. And I understand it’s probably meant to convey the primal urgency of Christoff’s passion but, dragon or not, I can’t readily imagine the thought process that develops from “I’m really enjoying this consensual sex we’re having” to “This consensual sex we’re having is so damn good, that if it wasn’t consensual, I wouldn’t care.” That’s just kind of insane.

And, even though I recognised that Christoff and Rue were very alike, and very well-suited, I wasn’t entirely happy about the ending. Basically Rue and Christoff end up together (no surprise) and go back to Dragonville, where there’s vague talk of Changing Things For The Better TM, and promises that they’ll regularly come back to London so Rue has some freedom left in her life. I can’t decide whether I’m deeply unromantic, because I didn’t really buy into the primal meant-to-be-togetherness of their relationship, or excessively romantic, because I felt it was too great a compromise. Obviously, I recognise that, in real life, love is compromise, and that’s okay, but Rue was such a fiercely independent character, and drákon society seemed so bloody awful, that I wasn’t sure Christoff was worth it. And I know have a slightly problematic, and let’s face it, patronising tendency not to trust heroines with their own happiness but I felt the fact that Rue had a crush on Christoff when she was growing up was over-accepted as a reason for why they should be together now. They do spend a fair bit of time together, chasing the diamond and having sex, but Christoff spends the whole of that time actively lying to her about his intentions and trying to bludgeon her into marrying him. We’re told early on that love works differently for the drákon:

The drákon did not woo and wed as Others did; their dance was more primal, the outcome more fixed. Driven by instinct, as well as passion, when mates were chosen, it was for the course of a lifetime. (p. 58)

But, honestly, I kind of found that a bit of a cop-out. I hasten to add, this wasn’t anything to do with the book, just my personal preferences and interests coming into play. For me, love has to be an intellectual drive as well as an instinctual one and, although Christoff was attractive and powerful and wore some truly excellent coats, I couldn’t quite see why it had to be him for Rue, and not some other attractive, powerful and sartorially classy bloke. I mean, I know they’re both alpha dragons and therefore somewhat limited in their options, but, for me to buy this particular romance, I needed to feel that their being together was as much genuine choice as a natural inevitability. Right at the very end, Christoff does release Rue from her obligation to marry him – but I got no sense from that scene that he really believed she might leave him, or that she even really considered it. So that slightly unbalanced the book for me because it felt like Rue’s real concerns for her freedom and agency got subsumed into “well, it’s okay, really, because she loves him.”

On the other hand, I suspect this an entirely personal grumble, and it was certainly a minor one. The Smoke Thief is an engaging, elegant story, beautifully told, and the most successful blending of romance and fantasy I’ve read so far. Well, okay, that’s from a shortlist of two, but it’s still top.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading The Smoke Thief: I like pretty words. Having your leg gored by a crocodile is no barrier to bonking. Georgian England has the best frocks and the best shoes. Dragons are totally hot. Heroines with swords are totally hot. Heroines in drag are totally hot.

37 Comments

  1. Erica Anderson
    May 31, 2013 @ 12:13:03

    OMG! Please mark future AJH reviews with “Warning: Do Not Drink Beverages While Reading.” “Bad dragon. No biscuit.” I absolutely lost it. Thanks for the hilarious review! (more, please)

  2. Isobel Carr
    May 31, 2013 @ 12:47:26

    I should give this another try. I just couldn’t get into it when it came out. The voice didn’t work for me at all (also couldn’t get into Novick’s Temeraire series no matter how many times I tried). When I think dragons and history, I go straight to Jo Walton’s TOOTH AND CLAW.

  3. LeeF
    May 31, 2013 @ 12:50:53

    I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this book- your review brought it all back. My biggest disappointment was that the other books in the series really did not live up to the promise of The Smoke Thief.

  4. Anne
    May 31, 2013 @ 12:58:45

    @Erica Anderson: I know, RIGHT?!! Me too! I think I scared my kids with my several sudden outbursts of laughter.
    Excellent review, I agreed on all points except that the prologue and how it didn’t really mesh with the rest of the story, wasn’t so easy for me to let slide. Instead it hung onto me like a small nagging spur caught onto my pant leg as I continued on with the story, because in the back of my mind I kept trying to see where they fit together.
    I do have to say it was this book that kindled a bit of an obsession with dragons in me, far more so than the previous two books I’d read centering around them had in any way sparked.

  5. Darlynne
    May 31, 2013 @ 13:38:16

    Oh, yes, must re-read this one, especially after “no biscuit”. You’ve made my day.

  6. Mary
    May 31, 2013 @ 13:55:37

    Although I think that Rue is my favorite heroine from Abé, I think the rest of the series does a better job of managing the problems of how awful the society is/the difference between drakón and human, etc. Also this book honestly reads like a prequel, while the rest of the series works better as a coherent unit.
    Also I will read anything with dragons. Anything. I will give it a try. However, in romancelandia I am frequently disappointed…this one, Thea Harrison and G.A. Aiken works for me, but anything else I’ve tried doesn’t. So maybe when I very recently found and glommed these books I overlooked slight issues like the fact that Christoff is kind of horrible in response to YAY WELL WRITTEN DRAGONS.

  7. leslie
    May 31, 2013 @ 14:00:50

    I liked The Smoke Thief mostly because of Rue’s ingenuity, Zach’s cheeky loyalty and the beautiful writing. When we meet the Comte at the Duchesses Ball…..well that’s when I really became engaged in the story. I also liked how Rue and Christoff constantly outwitted each other during the pursuit. His “shithead” attitude really bugged me though and I had to remind myself…..THIS IS A DRAGON…..but sometimes his behavior came totally out of left field! I never really warmed up to him and I wished Rue had escaped him. Voila!
    Book two in the chase. Christoff could have benefited from a little more humbling. IMHO.
    The London supporting characters were well crafted, but I hated that windbag of a council….. Grady reminded me of the typical blustering GOP politico. That sort of villain is very cartoonish….could almost see him sneering and twirling his mustasche. :)
    Another issue that came up for me was Rue’s name…..even with the explanation…..it just seemed like a negative little name for such a capable and magnificent woman. All in all I liked The Smoke Thief (beeyootiful cover) but I can’t imagine reading the rest of the series.

    Still on the hunt for a good dragon story. I think I might like it better when they don’t shift.
    Thanks for the terrific review!

  8. cleo
    May 31, 2013 @ 14:04:07

    I genuinely spent a few chapters believing that she was going to meet someone else (someone who, perchance, wasn’t a shithead), in basic recognition of the fact that the person you sorta fancied when you were fourteen is never going to be ideal life-partner material because, hello, you were fourteen and they were probably a shithead.

    Yes. This. I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read other romances with this “we’ve loved each other since we were children” set up and it’s so hard for me to believe it. I was starting to think that maybe it was just me who had ridiculously bad taste at 14 (and 19 and sadly most of my 20s) and that other people could actually imagine themselves settled down with their childhood crushes without wincing.

  9. leslie
    May 31, 2013 @ 14:07:26

    @Isobel Carr: I liked the first book in Novik’s Temeraire, but I hated the way she re-wrote history. When the French invaded England I was done!

  10. Kati
    May 31, 2013 @ 14:15:57

    Abe has such a tremendous gift with prose. The words are so beautifully strung together that I, like you, want to roll around in them. I’m glad you loved this one. I’m sure you have The Spymaster’s Lady by Jo Bourne on your list of stuff to read. Your reaction to this book tells me that you’d really enjoy it. Bourne’s prose is sparser than Abe’s, but she has this amazing gift of place and dialect that make you *hear* the accents. It’s gorgeous.

    Anyway, I seem to have meandered off topic. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one. Your review immediately sparks in me the wish to re-read. Thank you!

  11. AJH
    May 31, 2013 @ 14:59:14

    @Erica Anderson:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it… any excuse to use a picture of Picard, really, any excuse ;)

    Next week is, err, Dark Lover – which was, um, interesting. I can necessarily promised hilarity but there were lots of cheap ‘h’ jokes.

    @Isobel Carr:

    I’m genuinely not sure if you’d like this, to be honest, even on a charitable second reading. I say this based on knowledge garnered solely from your Tweeting, so it might be pure, presumptuous nonsense and totally wrong.

    I suspect you might like the Georgian stuff – I’m no historian but it seems sound, and the frocks are gorgeous. But I think you’d find Christoff, uh, difficult and I think you’d scowl a bit at the their relationship being semi-based on the fact Rue crushed on him as a 14 year old. It probably strays a bit too close to fated-mate.

    Rue is great though – a genuinely strong, principled and interesting heroine I think without ever actually being particularly ‘good’ or ‘virtuous.’

    Also the prose is what it is, I can see some people find it unbearably florid. But, hey, I like Georgian fashions – florid is my middle name.

    Love TOOTH AND CLAW, by the way. Also TEMERAIRE, though I stopped reading at about book 5, not because I stopped liking the series, but because I’m pretty fickle and it was fairly obvious it was going to simply be more of the same.

    @LeeF:

    Aw, I’m kind of sad to hear that because I loved the writing and there’s clearly lots going on here. I’d be genuinely interested to learn more about the Drakon and if Drakon society is actually as horrid as it seems in this book – and, if so, how Abe explores and balances that.

    @Anne:

    Thank you :)

    I can see why the prologue bugged you. It rationally bugged me but then I was just like “Oh Shana Abe, write whatever you like, just keep writing it.” And I’d basically forgotten about it until the epilogue and then I was just confused.
    I’ve only read two dragon-themed romances, and I really didn’t get on with Dragon Actually, so I was quite relieved to discover I liked The Smoke Thief.

    @Darlynne:

    Thank you and enjoy :) I would definitely pick up this one again when I wanted to luxuriate in some lovely prose. Also excellent dragons. 10 out 10 charred marshmallows for dragon quality.

    @Mary:

    Oh, that’s really interesting – the information about Drakon society is so sparse I couldn’t tell if it was MEANT to come across as being as messed up as it did. I’d be intrigued to see how Abe manages to create sympathetic protagonists who are members of a fundamentally unsympathetic society.

    I confess I didn’t get on with GA Aiken, which left me feeling a bit dragon depressed, so I approached The Smoke Thief cautiously, fearing a similar disappointment. And then I was incredibly happy because I really enjoyed it, largely because I thought the dragons were totally magnificent. I think I basically had a similar response to you: I downplayed the things that troubled me in favour of YAY DRAGONS.

    And that’s our inalienable right as citizens ;)

  12. Janine
    May 31, 2013 @ 15:15:40

    @Mary: Do you read YA? If so I highly recommend Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

  13. EGS
    May 31, 2013 @ 16:09:55

    Agree 100% with regards to that line. I enjoyed the ride until suddenly it comes to a SCREECHING STANDSTILL. What editor thought the line, “Rape or seduction. He would take either,” was a good idea? Ugh.

  14. AJH
    May 31, 2013 @ 16:45:10

    @leslie:

    Yes, I did really enjoy the book – for all the reasons you cite. Lovely writing, and Rue is amazing. I have to admit I find plucky urchins a little bit tiresome but I felt genuinely sorry for Zach, caught up in a power-game between two people infinitely more powerful than him.

    Also, I got that dragon values were meant to be markedly different to human values and I didn’t completely hate Christoff or anything but I was so invested in Rue I had trouble dealing with his, err, shithead behaviour. Maybe more grovelling would have done the trick, I don’t know. To me it felt like he only ever gave lip service to Rue’s agency – and given that the question eventually came down to whether he loved her in the same way that she loved him, NOT whether she was going to be allowed any freedom, I wasn’t sure if the book was only paying lip service to it as well.

    And, yes, agreed about the Council – they never felt like a serious threat to me, so it didn’t make sense why Christoff spent half the book trying to appease them.

    I did, however, like Rue’s name – maybe I’m a total smoosh, but I liked the fact that Christoff asks earlier on whether it’s the emotion or the flower, and calls her Rueflower from then on, as if always reminding her of the positive associations not the negative ones.

    Let me know how the hunt for the perfect dragon book goes – I’m always happy for recs, especially ones with dragons :)

    @cleo:

    Cleo, it might just be us :P I actually know at least one person who is insanely happily married to their first love … but I think they’re probably an exception.

    I am, in general, very into, y’know, growth and change and stuff like that which isn’t very romantic, so I can see why people would find something kind of charming in the idea that your first instincts were … correct and based on some instinctive sense of forever, rather than deranged and ill-conceived like, ahem, mine tend to be ;)

    But I’m with you, I’d hate to have wound up with any of my early life crushes or, err, midlife crushes now I think about it…

    @Kati:

    Oh, she really does. I can see why it might be a bit lavish for some readers, but I loved all those swoony words. Loved!

    Jo Bourne is definitely on the list, but some way down it, I think, because I was getting swamped in historicals. I’ve had a few strong recs for her, though, so I might try to shuffle her up. I don’t particularly need very pretty writing, but there’s a real pleasure in reading a book and noticing the skill of the writer, I think. I got that with Kinsale and Gaffney too, though they’re all in very different styles. Gaffney has a sort of scalpel precision I like, even though it’s slightly devastating, Kinsale is just mind-bogglingly good at this writing lark, and Abe is very sensuous.

    I’m pretty sure this was a you/Janine double-team rec, so thank you – I really enjoyed the book.

    @EGS:

    For me, it wasn’t so much the general principle (I could see that line perhaps working perfectly well in a different book) it was the context. Or rather the lack of context. Frankly, Rue would have kicked his arse if he’d tried anything she wasn’t entirely 100% up for and … yeah … they’re just so obviously having consensual sex that I don’t know why his mind would have skipped gleefully to rape. Very strange.

    I did sit there for a while trying to puzzle out what it was doing there which, I guess, is not what you want in the middle of an erotic encounter.

  15. DeeCee
    May 31, 2013 @ 17:50:27

    @LeeF

    I agree. I remember preordering The Dream Thief and when it arrived I had the WTF moment. So much had changed and it felt like Abe had decided to go in a different way now that the books were successful. I hung on till that last one which sat on my TBR pile for years, and it was so confuzzling. I love Abe’s prose, but the actual storylines leave a lot to be desired IMO.

    I’ve seen some positive reviews for her teen Drakon book, but it takes place so far after TST and it breaks my heart that the central mystery from books 2-5 wasn’t solved to my satisfaction that I’m not sure if I want to chance it.

  16. PeggyL
    May 31, 2013 @ 18:49:42

    Okay, out of lurking (again), because so happened I’ve read this one (albeit many years when-it-first-came-out ago).

    The main plot aside, the only thing I remember about SMOKE THIEF is the prose, and the word to describe is “luscious”; sometimes I think the writing overtook the “actions” in the story. However, I did enjoy it, because I so love a hero-in-pursuit story, no matter the hero is in the “shithead” category – just give me something he does (or even “thinks”) in the end to redeem himself and I’m on board. I guess I have more tolerance towards a hero than a heroine.

    So, time for a re-read. (I still keep it because it’s a hardback.)

    Thank you for another entertaining (and hilarious, of course) review. I shall look forward to the next one, as I can’t wait what you have to say about DARK LOVER.

  17. Lorenda Christensen
    May 31, 2013 @ 19:25:09

    Janine reccomended this book to me when I first expressed an interest in dragons, and I remember reading this and thinking what the heck am I doing trying to write a book about dragons when Abe has already written the most stunning, gorgeous dragon prose that ever existed between the pages of a romance novel.

    I too was absolutely blown away by the sheer magnificence of Abe’s word-put-together-skills. I still hold out hope that someday she’ll publish a book of dragon-centric poetry. :)

  18. hapax
    May 31, 2013 @ 20:32:50

    Oh, Abe. So conflicted.

    Her prose is so lush and gorgeous, her world-building so imaginative and meticulous, her heroines so strong and all-around AWESOME.

    And, yeah, DRAGONS.

    But the more we learn about drakon society (especially the English drakons), the more horrible they become, so arrogant and cruel and selfish and patriarchal rape-tastic, and I kept finding myself asking “WHY am I rooting for these guys again?”

    So, yes, SMOKE THIEF (and DREAM THIEF, because I really really liked Lia) are DIK, but as the series went on it left an increasingly creepy taste in my mouth.

    Until THE TIME WEAVER, which was a complete WTF? conclusion to the series.

  19. Susan
    May 31, 2013 @ 23:02:51

    I hadn’t read the last couple of books you reviewed so I was glad to see you cover one I have read (albeit many years ago). I remember being so conflicted about the book, wanting desperately to like it but being appalled by the hero and the drakons. Maybe I should give it another shot to see if I can capture the magic, but, you know, so many other unread books out there.

    Your reviews really are like bonbons, special treats for getting thru another week. Thanks for the joy. (You deserve a biscuit, or a bonbon!)

  20. MikiS
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 00:47:24

    @Susan: I’d pretty much say “same here!” I remember feeling so conflicted because the book was so temptingly well written but the “hero” was so not a hero in any way I viewed the hero.

    It’s been years, and I still remember the scene where he trapped her and wouldn’t let her out of the building until she agreed to go with him and she was so intensely sad….I just never was able to warm up to him. I have all the other books on my TBR pile and was never able to forgot the “shithead” enough to continue reading the series.

  21. Mandy
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 02:36:44

    Definitely time for a re-read! Thanks for a fantastic review. I also spit my coffee at the “Bad dragon. No biscuit’ line!

  22. Rei
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 03:53:26

    Right at the very end, Christoff does release Rue from her obligation to marry him – but I got no sense from that scene that he really believed she might leave him, or that she even really considered it. So that slightly unbalanced the book for me because it felt like Rue’s real concerns for her freedom and agency got subsumed into “well, it’s okay, really, because she loves him.”

    I have this problem with a whole lot of books; honestly it’s one of the things I struggle with the most as a romance reader. I kind of feel like a lot of romances that get off to a very strong start with actually tackling the “power! agency! equal partnerships!” kind of deal derail it pretty early on with “but look how much she fancies him!” and/or just kind of paper over the whole thing by the end with “well, yes, but…but look how in *love* they are!”. Good to see it articulated by another human. Also, you’re hilarious.

  23. Mary
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 05:06:49

    Smoke Thief and Dream Thief are great. Shana’s writing is so beautiful. I still remember words from her books. Raspberries, snow, gold and cream. The thump of snow hitting the ground as he f$)ks her up against a tree.

  24. AJH
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 05:15:24

    @PeggyL:

    Always happy to draw you out of lurkdom :)

    I agree – the prose is completely delicious and a little bit distracting. It left me a bit confused about some of the more difficult aspects of the book, like the oppressiveness of Drakon society, but, to be honest, it was the sort of distraction I very much enjoy.
    And, like you, I very much enjoyed the dynamic between Rue and Christoff – and I liked watching her run him in circles, but I tend to be much more invested in heroines than heroes (no idea why) and, in this case, I felt the ‘redemption’ if it even was a redemption was a bit lacklustre.

    Truthfully, I’m not even sure it was about redemption – Christoff is pretty clear that this is who is, and I was basically okay with that – except, for me, I didn’t get the sense that Rue mattered as *herself* as well as the woman he loved? Does that make any sense?
    Enjoy the re-read :)

    @Lorenda Christensen:

    Yes! Abe’s word-putting-together-skills (and that’s what I’m going to call it from now on) are truly magnificent. I think, as ever, this sort of thing comes down to personal taste. I certainly imagine a different reader finding it all a bit florid and fancy but I was just happy to roll about in the pretty.

    @hapax:

    I share that conflict – I was loving everything about the book, DRAGONS, Rue, beautiful beautiful writing, but I was genuinely kind of upset about Rue having to go back to what I read as being a deeply oppressive, gender-essentialist culture. It seemed that alpha-male dragons run the show, and alpha-female dragons are basically expected to marry the alpha-male dragon … because … because … they are?

    And I wasn’t sure how to the read the “drakon love differently” stuff – but then I wasn’t sure if it was my place to whinge about it.

    But are we meant to be rooting for the drakon? I thought that was going to be, y’know, the source of conflict or something?

    I might take a look at The Dream Thief, when I get bit of time (hah) but it sounds like I might want to stop there. I read Janine’s review of Abe’s latest YA and that definitely seemed like it wouldn’t be for me.

    @Susan:

    I genuinely wasn’t sure if my uncertainty about Christoff and Drakon culture was just me not getting it – I haven’t read any books that have used it, but I know, um, ‘meant to be together’ is sort of a trope.

    I honestly didn’t think Christoff was that bad, compared to other heroes I have encountered. He’s quite personable(also … good coats!), alongside being completely ruthless, but Rue is also completely ruthless so it seemed unfair to criticise the trait in Christoff but applaud it in Rue. And I liked how unapologetic he was about being who he was, and doing what he felt he had to do, but at the same time it did mean that it felt the compromise was all on Rue’s side, none on his.

    So glad you’re enjoying the reviews – I really enjoy writing them. I think we’ve got a packet of hobnobs in the cupboard. I shall go and reward myself ;)

    @Mandy:

    Enjoy the re-read – swoony prose ahead :) And thank you for the kind words.

    @Rei:

    Thank you :)

    It’s, um, complicated isn’t it? I’m not sure I’m a sufficiently sophisticated romance reader, or for that matter, reader to be able to interrogate the way issues of power play out over the … scant handful of books I’ve read. I think it’s difficult because a lot of them have been historical settings so there’s undeniably and inescapably a massive social and cultural power differential there. (And, often, a sexual one as well. since the hero tends to be the Best Person At Sexing Ever Who Has Sexed Everyone and the heroine is … a virgin) So, you end up with those types of power being balanced against emotional power (the hero is vulnerable to the heroine) which can feel a bit unsatisfying (especially if the hero has, y’know, cheerfully raped her a few pages back) but, at the same time, I sort of feel that since romance novels are explicitly framed and structure by the primacy of emotion, within the terms of the genre as I understand them – it kind of works? Or can work.

    To actually get back to the book in question, I think what rendered this stuff particularly problematic for me in The Smoke Thief was, as you say, how invested it initially seemed to be in Rue’s power, agency and freedom. Rue, herself, is unsurprisingly pretty invested in these things as well. But Christoff never once seems to acknowledge the reality of her concerns, or reflect that perhaps it’s not so great to be forcing women to marry you, even if (especially if) you truly wuv them. But Rue’s concerns for her freedom very quickly bur into concerns that Christoff doesn’t love her properly – and there’s this bit in the middle of the novel where she tells him she ran away because she didn’t want EITHER of them to be forced, which is very compassionate of her, yet Christoff never reaches the same conclusion.

    @Mary:

    *laughs*

    Yes, I agree, she uses colour absolutely gorgeously. And that is certainly the most lavishly described tree-centric quickie I could frankly have ever imagined possible…

  25. mari
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 07:08:10

    Your remarks about writing really struck me as spot on. My rule is, if I notice the writing, the story isn’t working for me. I don’t like seeing the writer at work, I just want to be swept up in the story.
    I think I remember trying to read this at one point but I found the prose too writerly. However, the mark of a good review (INMHO) is that it sometimes can give the reader of said review another way to look at someting, so I may have to reconsider this one. I like jerky alpha males (in my romance reading! In real life I would probably have to have a sit down with this chick!)

    Hmmmmm…you might want to consider Passion by Lisa Valdez. A lot of folks at DA found the prose too purple, I wasn’t one of them. It won many awards when it came out. Its erotic romance, and if anything I thought the language in the book only served to heighten the eroticism. I’d be curious to know what you thought of it.

  26. annie
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 10:52:17

    what.a.bad.idea to start this book late at night. here i am writing this and i can barely keep my eyes open.

    im not usually into paranormal but this was so good. i loved it.

    any other good books like this? not thea harrison, please. i already read that one.

  27. Shelley
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 11:33:32

    So seriously, I have never had the slightest interest in reading these books and really, really wish I had at least skimmed through them at some point cuz I like pretty words too. Not a huge dragon fan either and G.A. Aiken’s books just confused and bored me. These, I will need to look into in more depth. Thanks for a great review.

  28. NBLibGirl
    Jun 01, 2013 @ 21:18:10

    Thank you for another fabulous review. I look forward to them every week!
    I was little worried about having recommended The Smoke Thief when I read your initial comments at the front of Dragon Actually. SO glad you liked it. So, yeah. Dragons can be hot. . .

  29. AJH
    Jun 02, 2013 @ 06:09:00

    @mari:

    Well, we all have our own approaches to texts, and I can see how writing might be a big deal to some readers, alongside anything else that drags you out of a book you’re supposed to be enjoying. But, you know, I’m not an editor, just a reader, and I’d rather engage with things positively (I notice this because I like it) than negatively (I notice this because I don’t like it) – and, again, that’s not meant to be a sweeping statement of any sort of moral virtue, it’s just about keeping my sanity in my pleasure-time :)

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘writerly’ prose – do you mean self-consciously trying to be arty? Because I can see that, to be honest, it’s all high falutin. It just happened to really work for me. I quite like swimming around in lush descriptions of stars and frocks and, err, naked men apparently.

    I’ll certainly take a look at Passion – thanks for the rec. I haven’t given it much thought but I think eroticism can be rather difficult to communicate (or possibly I’m just … wired … to appreciate it) and I can see how sensuous prose might be one way to do it.

    @annie:

    Hah, that’s been happening to me a lot lately. Life being what it is, I tend to grab my reading time at about 11:30 at night … and then one thing leads to another and, bugger, it’s 3am.

    And I’m so glad you enjoyed it the book. Yay!

    Recs are obviously not my forte – so I leave that one in the very capable hands of DA readers :)

    @Shelley:

    I did not get on with GA Aiken either. Damn near disliked them intensely, in fact. Again, not a general criticism, just very much not for me. But The Smoke Thief is very very different – and, as you can see, I very much enjoyed it.

    If you do check it out, I hope you enjoy :)

    @NBLibGirl:

    Oh, I’m the same. I always dissolve into terror when I recommend people books, in case they hate them and are miserable. It’s like introducing two friends you’re sure are going to love each other…

    I did really enjoy this one, and it totally redeemed dragons for me, after Dragon Actually – so, yes, thank you very much :)

  30. Robin/Janet
    Jun 02, 2013 @ 19:32:11

    This was the first Romance novel I finished and turned right around and started again. Even though the writing tends to more purple than is to my taste, it is passionate and demonstrative in a way that I think really helps create the mood for the kind of power Rue and Christoff represent.

    I realize that might be a strange expression, but for me TST is such an evocative and provocative book, that the lush prose is an essential aspect of that. It’s not just a writing style, but it’s like a living, breathing character in the book to me, as much a part of the story and Rue and Christoff’s relationship arc.

    Speaking of Rue and Christoff, while I agree that it would be nice if he wasn’t *always* such an asshole, I think Abe’s handling of two alphas who are also fated mates is very impressive. I rarely buy the fated mate device because I hardly ever actually believe that they may not make it and because that can often be an excuse for anything goes with an alphahole hero. But Abe actually makes me believe that Rue and Christoff might not reach their happy ending, in part because they are both alphas who come from this incredibly complex and not always that admirable society. I never felt they were unmatched as partners or combatants, and I think if I’d want anything changed it would be the sense of Christoff so relentlessly pursuing Rue (which for me is part of his assholishness, because Rue can seem to be in a defensive position too often). But at the same time. I always felt that Rue was just as powerful as Christoff and was glad she didn’t “tame” him, which is a trope I have some real issues with. Instead, Abe keeps both of them alpha, and it’s no small task to make that work in a genre that doesn’t always reward alpha heroines.

    @Shelley: I think the Aiken books are at best a mixed bag. Given your comments in the Op-ed thread about liking strong characters who go at it, though, I have to ask if you’ve read the Shelly Laurenston (aka Aiken) Magnus Pack series (Pack Challenge, Go Fetch, and Here, Kitty Kitty). The writing can be rough, but the heroines rock (and Laurenston writes great MC heroines) and they love to battle with the heroes.

  31. Shana Abe'
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 20:30:23

    Um…what’s an L-plate? Seriously. I don’t get out much.

    Also, excellent use of Picard!

  32. cleo
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 20:36:30

    @Shana Abe’: Learner’s Plate indicating a student driver – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L-plate

  33. Shana Abe'
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 20:46:13

    @cleo: Aha! Thank you!! I was gnawing on that one for a while, LOL.

  34. AJH
    Jun 05, 2013 @ 06:37:31

    @Robin/Janet:

    I always feel like accusations of purpletude in prose can be … I don’t know … I think it’s one of those default criticisms you can reach for because you think it’s the sort of thing you’re supposed, like condemning people who like wine for being pretentious when some people just happen to like wine. Again, I can see why the rather florid style might not be someone else’s taste but, like you, I found it a deeply satisfying and necessary part of the narrative. And, yes, you’re absolutely right, that’s a perfect way to express it, it IS like a character. I think it works well as a reflection of the Drakon as well, something very beautiful but a little troubling at the same time – as I said in the I don’t know if it was meant to be deliberately distracting from the darker aspects of the text, but I definitely found it so.

    And, I agree with you about Rue and Christoff – I did feel they were well-matched, and that the power dynamic between them was balanced. But I had trouble with the happy ending – not because of the characters, precisely, but because Rue was such driven by her need for freedom and agency, and their society was so blatantly deeply fucked up. Even loving Christoff didn’t seem like enough to make to palatable for me, but I recognise that’s a personal reading, and also not my call. If Rue thought she’d be happy then … I kind of have to believe her :)

    I haven’t really seen to much of “taming” in action. I think alphas have to change just by necessity – otherwise the heroine is stuck with some dickhead. It depends how it’s handled though. I guess Sebastian in THATH? Rachel doesn’t change him per se but she catalyses change in him, and the choices he makes to save himself, and save her, are *his* choices. So I don’t think changing is automatically the same as taming, but this probably isn’t what you’re getting at. The truth is, although I liked that Christoff is very clear that alpha is who he is, and that’s never going to be otherwise, I felt there was room for just a bit more recognition of Rue’s reality as an independent person with divergent needs. Not just His Mate TM.

    @Shana Abe’:

    Um … thank you. And, oh dear, that’s your book. I hope you don’t mind Picard’s application in this instance.

    If it’s any consolation, I feel Kirk would respond to the situation like this.

    You don’t have L-plates elsewhere? They’re how learner drivers are designated in the UK, and I’m a learner romance reader :)

  35. Shana Abe'
    Jun 05, 2013 @ 15:21:05

    @AJH: I very much don’t mind! You made me laugh out loud. The Kirk shot was even better. (I’m a Trekkie.)

    You know, I’m not sure about the L-plates here. It’s been a loooong time since I learned to drive. But if we don’t have them, we should.

    And I really enjoyed your review. :-)

  36. Tuesday links | Jorrie Spencer
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 10:18:02

    […] I loved this review by AJH at Dear Author: The Smoke Thief by Shana Abé. A book I thoroughly enjoyed, and its prose […]

  37. bryanna evans
    Feb 15, 2014 @ 17:33:11

    I like the book very much. I love it it is my forvert book in my house of my own books colltion

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