Django Wexler has been on my "authors to try" list for a long time, mainly for his five-part "Shadow Campaigns" series - the opening volume of which is sitting on my TBR shelf and judging me right now. I actually hadn't realised that he also writes YA until this book showed up on my radar, but it seemed like a great place to start with his work that's highly relevant to my interests - kickass heroine takes on a ghost ship in a fantasy world? Sign me up!
Ship of Smoke and Steel starts on pretty safe ground, introducing us to a mysteriously magical young protagonist making her way through the underworld on what to her is a routine mission. Isoka is an adept from the Well of Combat, one of nine magical sources of power which people can be born to tap into - being an adept means that she's more magically powerful than those who are merely "touched" or "talented" by the wells, which can also variously give powers of fireballs, force waves, perception skills and creepy mistrusted healing powers. In Isoka's case, her Melos powers mean she can make magical force blades appear out of her hands, and summon armour to protect her, and she's somehow managed to hide these magical talents in a society where only nobles and those pressed into Imperial service are supposed to have them. When we meet her, Isoka is completely resigned to the realities of her world and her own violent position in it. The only bright spark is her relationship with her younger sister, Tori, who Isoka has managed to secure a spot in a nice area of town while she works to keep her in luxury and away from the harshness of the life they were born into. All this means that when Isoka is caught by one of the most powerful people in the empire within the first couple of chapters Tori is the easiest bargaining chip to compel her to do what the authorities want: steal the Soliton, a mysterious ghost ship that makes a route around the known world and demands magical teen tribute wherever it goes. If she comes back with the ship, her sister won't be murdered. Good times.
All of this is an adequate if not inspirational set-up for Isoka to be particular type of hero: a hardened do-what-it-takes disaster, with just enough callousness for us to understand the lengths she'll go to for survival, while retaining enough sympathy to let us root for her as the external challenges mount up. It's a stock character, but it works for the grim narrative and the reason this type of powerful heroine keeps showing up is because it produces a satisfying story, even though we might wish that Isoka's external motivations had been slightly better explored before taking her out of that environment and throwing her into a new one. The other character the narrative really pushes is Meroe, a princess from Jyashtan, a southern land which Isoka has barely even heard of, who has been cast out by her father and is oddly reluctant to disclose her own powers. There's an unfolding romance between Isoka and Meroe which is quite sweet; although it does play out against a background of internalised homophobia from both Isoka and Meroe's cultures, none of the other characters express homophobic opinions about their attraction, and there are other queer characters and relationships too. The romance also adds a more immediate positive relationship to Isoka's quest than her rather distant connection to Tori, which is much needed given her predisposition to otherwise fight anyone who comes within magical-blade range.
The back of this book calls the story "cinematic", and that's a great description for how Isoka's time on the Soliton plays out. There's a lot of attention paid to building up terrifying monsters, like giant tentacled crabs called Blueshells or the Hammerhead, a mouth on legs - for Isoka and her band of allies to fight, and it makes for accomplished, well-realised battles with a satisfyingly strong-but-challenged heroine. However, the way they're built into the plot feels less like a movie and more like an RPG-style "episodic adventure, then return to camp" structure - a feeling I also had with Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings (at least in one of that book's enormous subplots). It's a structure I'm totally into when used by games: go fight a thing, then come back to the Normandy and see if your sidekicks have any new dialogue, then repeat until everything is dead and solved. With a book like this, however, I feel like this structure does weird things to the tension when Isoka and company aren't in a "designated threat scene". While the dwellers in the Stern, the main habitable area of the ship, are supposedly under constant threat from the various crabs and even toothier things that live just beyond their flimsy walls, there's an awful lot of hanging around and posturing and having sexy moments in their tenuously safe areas and not much indication that anybody is actually on guard except when they're out in the Depths. Isoka has a lot to do in camp too, finding her way from the very bottom of the heap to a trusted member of the Stern's leadership respected for her fighting talents, but the lack of attention on the mission originally given to her by the empire, which is supposed to keep the one thing she cares about safe, is also a bit offputting.
The mysteries of the Soliton itself are intriguing and far from resolved in this volume, although I was sadly disappointed by the lack of nautical content. The idea of an ostensibly magical but all-too-real ghost ship patrolling the known territories of the world is a fascinating image, but what the Soliton actually draws on is a significantly more modern affair, full of endless metal corridors and narrow suspended walkways (all filled with crabs) and controlled by a mysterious Captain. The Soliton is supposedly bigger than a city, contains cavernous depths which take days to escape from, and is full of a type of magical energy whose sudden introduction might come as a surprise unless you've read the cheat sheet at the front of the book and assumed that "Eddica, the Lost Well" is probably going to end up being plot relevant at some point. It would be spoilery to go into how the "well of spirits" fits in with Isoka's story, but despite the somewhat left-field introduction the ship's mysteries do pick up considerably once it starts playing a role, although this is very much the first book in the trilogy and there is plenty of ground left to cover in the second two volumes - not least Isoka catching up on the part where she actually has to steal the ship and bring it back to an empire she hates in order to save her sister.
Whether I'll actually be on board for those subsequent instalments is another matter. I liked Ship of Smoke and Steel, but ultimately the parts I enjoyed didn't obscure the feeling that I could see too much of how the trick was being done to really sit back and enjoy the show. There's creativity and interesting worldbuilding on display here, but the formulaic pacing of battle scenes switched me off despite how well done the scenes themselves are, and the curious detachment from Isoka's own quest and the mysteries of the Soliton for large parts of the book left the narrative with little time to actually invest me in seeing how these play out. Ship of Smoke and Steel is by no means off-putting, however, and for the right reader, the start of Isoka's grim quest to fight her way out of the forces against her will no doubt be a more compelling experience.
Bonuses: +1 Interesting take on the idea of a ghost ship
Penalties: -1 Too much stock in stock tropes and motivations; -1 the formula of "cinematic" tension doesn't build up as well as it could
Nerd Coefficient: 5/10 "problematic, but has redeeming qualities"
POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.
Reference: Wexler, Django. Ship of Smoke and Steel [Tor Teen, 2019].