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-.