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REVIEW: The Smoke Thief by Shana Abé

Dear Ms. Abé,

Imagine a place so ripe and thick with the promise of magic that the very air breathes in plumes of pearl and gray and smoky blue; that the trees bow with the weight of their heavy branches, dipping low to the ground, dropping needles and leaves into beds of perfume. A place of white sparkling mountains and black forests and one high, ancient castle. Of diamonds that churn up raw from the marrow of the earth to lace the woods, unseen, in necklaces of ice and fire.

The first book in your drákon series begins in this fashion, with a prologue that tells of a species of dragons who, in order to survive the encroachment of mankind, took human shape and traveled from their home in Eastern Europe to England. Although I am usually a fan of luxurious language, the descriptions in the prologue verge on being too rich for my blood. They are very effective at conveying that drákon’s origins are the stuff of fables, but I am nonetheless glad when the prologue gives way to chapter one and The Smoke Thief settles into a lovely style that is still poetic, but more restrained.

The girls had paused in a soft valley between the hills, clutching their hats as the breeze turned brisker. Sunlight showed honeyed locks flying and flaxen, strawberry blond and ginger red. Four girls, smiling and chattering amid the green. Someone loosed her flowers, and the August wind blew them into bright confusion.

The year is 1737 and the girls are being observed by sixteen year old Kit Langford, Earl of Chasen, just as his father, the Marquess of Langford, and the men on the drá kon’s council are discussing the fact that no female in four generations has completed what they call the Turn. Kit, bored with the discussion, watches as a younger, mouse-like girl appears in the meadow and the other four girls begin to chase her. She is Clarissa, whose father was human, and who for that reason is considered a "Halfling" of no importance to the drá kon tribe. Kit gives little thought to Clarissa, who is in love with him, and five years later, when he is away at school, he learns that she has drowned.

Nine more years pass, by which time Kit’s father has died and Kit has become the tribe’s alpha. He and the others on the council are plagued by the growing notoriety of a London jewel thief associated with smoke, dubbed "The Smoke Thief" by the press. Such a thief could only be a runner, a member of the tribe broke their laws and escaped their village of Darkfrith. To do so is punishable by death, and this particular runner’s high-profile thefts are endangering the safety of the entire tribe, whose survival depends on passing for human.

In order to capture the thief, Kit and his fellow members come to London to display the tribe’s cherished jewel, the Langford diamond, in order to tempt the thief into carelessness. When the diamond is displayed at The Stewart, Kit makes a stunning discovery: that the Smoke Thief is female — the girl whom everyone believed dead — and that unlike any other drákon female, she possesses the power to turn herself to smoke and then to dragon. Before he can capture her, the woman disappears, and someone else steals the diamond.

Rue, as she is now called, always felt like an outcast among the tribe and has carved a life for herself in London. She does not want to return to Darkfrith, but when Kit and the council find her, they don’t give her a choice. Were she male, she would face execution for her crimes, but the fact that she’s a female who can Turn makes her far too valuable. She is now the tribe’s female alpha, and the man whose mate she’ll become will have supremacy. Like the other men, Kit covets Rue for himself and he intends to have her, one way or another.

But as much as she is attracted to Kit, Rue craves her freedom more, and so she strikes a bargain with him: she will help him find the Langford diamond and capture the drákon who stole it, in return for liberty from the tribe. Kit agrees, but has no intention of honoring his end of the deal.

The Smoke Thief is one of the best examples of paranormal romance I have found in my reading so far, a successful blend of romance and fantasy, fable and gritty reality. Going into it, I expected that any book about people who can turn into dragons would be at least a little bit cheesy, but I was happy to have my prejudice refuted. The fantastical aspects of the book are married so well with its romantic aspects, its historical atmosphere, and its jewel thief subplot that what emerges is a nearly seamless creation, the written equivalent of a creature that can fly and thieve and perform dazzling tricks one moment, and in the next be as naked as a newborn, stripped down to its essentials.

Rue and Kit are such creatures too, and they display both human and dragon characteristics. Each of them is in his or her own way covetous, ruthless and pragmatic, and they fight not only for each other, but for the upper hand and for the having of the other on their own terms. But through their streaks of selfishness and self-possession wind threads of generosity and bravery, and this combination of traits make them not only multidimensional and real, but also right for one another. I closed the book unable to imagine Kit with someone other than Rue, or Rue with someone other than Kit.

As I was debating what to grade this book, I thought of giving it a B+, because a few things did interfere just slightly with my enjoyment, namely the lushness of the prologue, the presence of yet another orphan urchin, the emphasis on Rue’s purity, and a few same-scene viewpoint shifts that were a bit jarring to me. But while I was debating, the book and its characters stayed with me, like an unusually vivid dream.

In this season of gratitude, I’m thankful to have discovered you with this book and that I have your backlist to explore. Writers who put words together like jewelers crafting bracelets, whose characters have as many facets as polished diamonds, whose creations sparkle and gleam, make me glad to be a reader in a genre rich with possibilities. A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

14 Comments

  1. jaq
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 17:38:47

    Yep. This one a keeper for me. The only reason I haven’t bought the sequel is because the hardcover is more than the hardcover release of TST (which was priced more along the lines of a Trade). I’ll wait for the paperback. :-P

    I did go out and buy her mermaid historical romance book, but haven’t gotten into it yet.

  2. Keishon
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 17:59:25

    You said it all. I loved this book and voted it best book of the year. I did start The Dream Thief but kinda put it down to read a fantays novel by Sarah Monette, called Melusine? Yeah. I need to get back to my other book, thanks for the reminder.

  3. Janine
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 18:03:54

    I’m glad that you enjoyed The Smoke Thief too, jaq. I’ve ordered The Dream Thief and it’s on its way to me. Buy.com is having a $10 off a purchase of $30 special if you use google checkout rather than the regular checkout, and I justified buying TDT in hadcover by making it part of my purchase with them.

    I bought The Smoke Thief in paperback and I am the kind of anal person who likes my books to match, so it is possible that I will even buy a second copy of The Dream Thief when it comes out in paperback. I know how silly that is but I just couldn’t wait a year to read that book.

  4. Janine
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 18:12:24

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the book as well, Keishon. I only read it very recently and it seems that many people read it ahead of me but I hope this review decides some of those who haven’t to give it a try.

  5. readerdiane
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 18:49:43

    It took me a little bit to get into Dream Thief but I persevered and it was well worth it. I really liked it because it had the fantasy elements but it wasn’t violent. I loved the printing on the edge of the pages.

    I read that Shana Abe is having trouble with the 3rd one. I hope she finishes that one soon.

  6. Kim
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 20:04:17

    I’m going to give it a try. I remember hearing about it when it came out. Not sure what happened after that. lol

  7. Robin
    Nov 20, 2006 @ 22:11:38

    My love for this book is a fierce and wondrous thing. It’s the first book I can remember reading three times back to back (I can barely account for a number of years in my late teens and early 20s, you know, the college years, so anything was possible back then). I had no problem with the prologue because IMO it captured the excess of so much mythic language. Nothing about the writing of this book felt forced or artificial to me. I loved how Abe continually drew my attention to small details, from the fall of Kit’s hair to the dresses Rue wore, to the way the London sky looked from the perspective of the drakon. It was an absolute pleasure to read about a hero who really was, IMO, alpha in the true sense of the word — a leader of his people who did not question what he needed to do and did not intend to compromise. And to have a heroine who was the same way! That Abe could take these two characters, driven by both their human and their drakon traits, and make it clear that their ultimate union was not a compromise but simply a bonding of both necessity and desire made this book a nearly flawless read for me. I’m already ordering her backlist, and have started The Dream Thief (worth HB price just for the borders of the pages). And to think I almost didn’t read this one after the AAR review. Thank god for reader blogs.

  8. Marg
    Nov 21, 2006 @ 03:30:58

    I bought this not too long ago! I am really looking forward to reading it! Your review has made me want to move it up the TBR pile!

  9. Janine
    Nov 21, 2006 @ 13:41:09

    readerdiane — I am very much looking forward to The Dream Thief. I’ll keep in mind that it requires a little perserverance.

    Kim and Marg — I hope you enjoy the book! Don’t put off reading it; it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

    Robin — I’ve had only a very few books that I’ve read back to back after finishing. This one isn’t one of those very few but I can appreciate how thrilling it is when that happens.

    I agree that the prologue captured the essence of mythic language, and that was what I meant when I wrote that the rich descriptions in the prologue are very effective at conveying that the drákon’s origins are the stuff of fables. But I still felt that those verbal pyrotechnics were a bit too blinding, if that makes sense. However, I very much appreciated the fine writing elsewhere in the story, including the attention to detail that you mentioned. I agree about the characters too. It’s a terrific book.

  10. Maggie Robinson
    Nov 21, 2006 @ 20:22:52

    I’m not generally a huge paranormal fan, although I’ve been surprising myself, dabbling a bit with vampires and faeries, et al. But wow. The Smoke Thief was as bright as the fabled mountain gems Abe describes. Lush, lovely prose and a premise that should have been ridiculous but wasn’t. I can still see the scenes described and feel the joy of the dragons in flight. Exceptional read.

  11. Julia
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 06:26:53

    Janine, I haven’t read it yet, but after reading your review I will be looking for it. It sounds great and I read some of Shana’s earlier books and I like her voice.
    I didn’t use to read many paranormals, but lately it seems that they are interesting me more and more.

  12. Janine
    Nov 22, 2006 @ 12:08:34

    Maggie — Yes, I agree, the scenes of the dragons in flight were lovely. And the unlikely premise was pulled off beautifully. I got The Dream Thief in yesterday’s mail, and it’s near the top of my TBR.

    Julia — I hope you enjoy this book. I haven’t read any of Ms. Abé’s earlier books yet, but I plan to do that.

    I think paranormals are more in the pubic consciousness now. I know I’m reading more of them than I used to, but I don’t know if it’s because they interest me more or because I hear more about them.

    This one was a pretty special book. I think that some authors are jumping on the paranormal bandwagon in order to stay published, but Shana Abé has a special talent for this subgenre. Fantasy and reality were beautifully balanced in this book.

  13. Betty.l
    Sep 07, 2007 @ 12:32:03

    AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH THIS BOOK IS RUBBISH. IT IS GOOD

  14. The Smoke Thief « Jorrie Spencer
    Jul 05, 2010 @ 05:07:52

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