The Smoke Thief, by Shana Abé

>> Monday, December 04, 2006

The Smoke Thief, by Shana Abé, was one of the most controversial books discussed in the AAR message boards in the last months. It got a D there, and many, many people protested that it had been an A for them. So, though the AAR reviewer's description didn't sound like a book that would appeal to me, I decided to read it anyway, just to see what the fuss was about.

Imagine a world where clouds could be dragons, and dragons could be people...where diamonds beckon with silent songs and a beautiful runaway turns out to be an infamous jewel thief who dissolves into smoke with just a whisper of a thought.

Now imagine the drákon lord sent to capture her.

For centuries they've lived in secret amid the green and misted hills of northern England, shapeshifters who have the ability to Turn from human to smoke to dragon, and back again. They skim the sky and haunt the stars, powerful beyond thought, beautiful, sensual. They are the drákon.

Like any hunted beast, they've survived the centuries by learning silence, by keeping the secret of the tribe absolutely sacrosanct. But one of them has broken the rules, has run to eighteenth-century London and is using his powers to steal fabulous gemstones. Dubbed the "Smoke Thief," he's the most serious threat to the drákon in memory. Christoff Langford, Marquess of Langford and Alpha of the tribe, has sworn to bring the runner home at any cost.

But even Kit doesn't realize that the Smoke Thief is a woman.

Rue Hawthorne is a halfling: half drákon, half mortal, and an outcast in both worlds. As a little girl she loved Kit from afar. As a woman she knows better to trust her heart to anyone, especially the charismatic, ruthless leader of the drákon. She fled her home to escape a forced marriage to him; as the first female in four generations to complete the Turn, she knows she'll be considered Kit's property. Rue, however, has much bigger dreams than that.

A spectacular diamond is missing, Kit's hot on her heels, and Rue's about to find out that even thieves can have their hearts stolen….
*sigh* This is the type of review I hate to write. I've no idea how to grade this. On one hand, TST is beautifully written. Really, really beautifully. What Abé does with words, the images she creates, it was all unbelievably lovely! And then there's the fact that she creates a convincing, truly interesting fantasy in her dra'kon. But I'm afraid the story these beautiful words narrate and the characters that populate it are just... well, just ok, I guess. Maybe a B? I'm not completely convinced by this grade, but it's my best estimate at this time.

It's 1737 and deep in the North of England live the dra'kon, shapeshifters who can go from human to dragon form or shift into smoke. They live their lives in secrecy, keeping everyone else from realizing that they're not quite human, because events in their past have shown them that discovery means their destroyal.

The members of the tribe live happy in their isolation. It is only a grave threat to the secrecy of their existence that sends the tribe's Alpha, Christoff, Marquess of Langford, to London. Lately the newspapers have been full of stories about someone they call the Smoke Thief, a jewel thief who can seemingly walk through locked doors, thus the nickname. To the dra'kon, it's obvious that this Smoke Thief must be one of them, a runner, someone who somehow managed to contravene their strict laws against anyone leaving Darkfrith.

That person must be brought back and face justice. It's not just that he's bringing danger to the tribe, he must also be made an example of. And so Kit sets a trap, by exhibiting the Langford diamond, the dra'kon's most precious possession. He bets that the thief won't be able to resist it. But he didn't expect the Smoke Thief to be a woman, the first woman in years to be able to make the Turn into dragon form, and the woman Kit immediately recognizes as his alpha mate.

But Clarissa Rue Hawthorne has no intention to meekly become Kit's wife. She'd rather die than come back to the life she hated so much as a young girl. But Rue gets a reprieve, because someone else actually has stolen the diamond that was supposed to be the bait, and so she negotiates a bargain with the dra'kon council: she'll work with Kit to recover the diamond for them, in exchange for her freedom. Only Kit doesn't intend to let her get away from him.

So on the positive side we've got beautiful writing and a truly interesting and original mythology. I also quite liked the plot's twists and turns, especially their investigation in London. Unfortunately, much of the rest is on the blah side, including most of what makes up the romance.

The main thing I had a problem with was Rue's characterization. I felt very distant from her, didn't understand her at all. I never got a feel for what made her tick. What was the catalyst for her running away? I understand she felt like an outsider, being a halfling (half dra'kon, half human) and I certainly understand her not liking the life in Darkfrith (it does sound apalling; more on this later), but what led her to make such a drastic decision, one that could be so dangerous to her very life? An explanation could be that she didn't want to spend her life as Kit's alpha when he doesn't love her, but she'd barely had enough interactions with him to make such a decision, so that didn't really click for me.

And why is she still stealing jewelry? Sure, it's a way for her to support her household, but why such high-profile jewels, and why in such an obviously super-human way that it was sure to come to the attention of the dra'kon council? Is it an addiction to risk? Does she secretly want to be brought back to Darkfrith? Is she just stupid and didn't realize? I've no idea. And same thing for her feelings for Kit, once they're in London together, trying to get the diamond back. How does she feel about him? Another thing that just didn't click to me.

Kit I understood much better. I didn't really like him much, but he was better done as a character. I tend to have a bit of a weakness for romances in which the hero plots and manipulates to win the heroine, but there was a coldness in Kit's machinations that left a bad taste in my mouth. In the end, I just couldn't forget that he never intended to keep his promises to Rue.

And finally, I couldn't help but hope that Rue would be able to manage to stay away from Darkfrith, somehow. It seemed like such a violent place, full of cruel, narrow-minded people who seem to think that they owe women no respect, and that a promise given to a woman need not be fulfilled. I think I would have prefered an ending in which she hadn't stayed with Kit, as long as she'd been able to stay in London. And the fate of the other runner, too, didn't fit at all in my idea of a HEA ending.

I guess that was the problem. I shouldn't have read this as a romance, but simply as fantasy.


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