My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Release date: 1 May 2018
Length: 400 pages
A princess, a traitor, a hunter and a thief. Four teenagers with the fate of the world in their hands. Four nations destined for conflict.
In Brigant, Princess Catherine prepares for a loveless political marriage arranged by her brutal and ambitious father. In Calidor, downtrodden servant March seeks revenge on the prince who betrayed his people. In Pitoria, feckless Edyon steals cheap baubles for cheaper thrills as he drifts from town to town. And in the barren northern territories, thirteen-year-old Tash is running for her life as she plays bait for the gruff demon hunter Gravell.
As alliances shift and shatter, and old certainties are overturned, our four heroes find their past lives transformed and their futures inextricably linked by the unpredictable tides of magic and war. Who will rise and who will fall? And who will claim the ultimate prize?
Doubtless the synopsis of The Smoke Thieves will remind seasoned readers of various other fantasy series with rotating third person limited POVs, set in a high fantasy pseudo-medieval world with warring kingdoms and some greater looming threat. Yes, The Smoke Thieves slots comfortably into this genre. Although the lack of innovation may feel underwhelming, Sally Green hits on the high points of YA fantasy and smooths out the rough bits with her compelling, intensely readable style to deliver an above average novel.
Her writing possesses a rare level of clarity that makes all the tropes easier to swallow. The tropes themselves are plentiful, beginning with the rebellious princess that YA authors love. Ironically, many YA speculative novels are about the underdogs rising up or the oppressed taking a stand, yet those same novels inevitably wind up taking the POV of a wealthy heiress. Fortunately, Princess Catherine is a scrappy heroine worth rooting for–in a society that treats its women worse than the KSA, her strong will and perceptiveness shine through. She may be representative of a problematic trope, but Catherine is no cliché.
The other protagonists are less emblematic of fantasy stock characters and boldly unique to their own backgrounds and identities. If there’s one thing to say about Sally Green’s cast, it’s that there’ll be no conflating them. Remove the names of Catherine, Ambrose, Edyon, March and Tash, and it would be a moment’s work to tell who’s who.
That said, not every character is shaded with equal care. Ambrose is far and away the weakest, the connection between him and Catherine too tenuous to serve as the heart of their story arc. Compounding the problem is Ambrose’s acute lack of motivations, goals and personality traits that can’t be traced back to Catherine, unfortunately a common issue with YA authors when writing love interests. However, when said love interest is a main POV character in his own right, his lack of development is all the more jarring.
Edyon and March are a decent storyline, if predictable. March’s desire for revenge is a well-executed take on a classic literary theme. The same goes for Edyon’s struggle with his illegitimacy, but Edyon stands out for his kleptomania and his relationship with his mother, both of which are highlights to what would have otherwise been an ultra-conventional raison d’être.
Tash, the cheeky waif positioned to steal readers’ hearts and emerge as a fan favourite, may be The Smoke Thieves‘s brightest star. She and Gravell are Arya and the Hound all over again, a relentlessly entertaining partnership that you can’t help but feel drawn to. Luckily for us, Green recognises the potential in her youngest and wiliest protagonist, and gives her the attention she deserves.
The five protagonists, who begin the novel in four different locations, are cleverly juggled and brought together with few contrivances. Their movements are geographically sensible and easy to follow on an illustrated map. Although I don’t give much credence to the marketing that’s already comparing The Smoke Thieves to Game of Thrones (as is done with practically every new YA fantasy series nowadays), Green’s adeptness at managing multiple storylines is one of her strongest points and one of the areas most reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire.
The Smoke Thieves may not stand out that much in the crowded field of its genre, especially with similar releases such as Ash Princess hitting shelves this spring, but it carries a certain je ne sais quoi that intrigues more deeply than most other high fantasies. Perhaps it’s the concept of the mysterious demon smoke. Perhaps it’s that the importance of the central teenagers is eventually justified by narrative reasons, rather than leaving you scratching your head wondering why all the adults aren’t intervening. There are many little things that, combined, make The Smoke Thieves an above average read.
Overall, an immersive series opener, if one that could have used an additional 100 pages to round out its numerous characters and settings. Should the sequel expand on the world of Pitoria, Calidor and Brigant, The Smoke Thieves could become a promising successor to YA fantasy’s current big names.
*Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*