REVIEW: The Smoke Thief by Shana Abé
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,
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)
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.