Ship of Smoke and Steel is an enjoyable fantasy that squeaks into the YA label because the protagonist is a teenager. The violence and sex in the book make it suitable for older teens at best, and boy do I feel like a prude saying that. I found out about this book thanks to John Scalzi’s wonderful segment on his blog “The Big Idea” where an author tells you about a book they have coming out and how they came up with it. I find a lot of interesting books through that segment, and I want to plug it. Anyway, I’m a casual fan of Wexler’s and I’ve enjoyed his books, although I’m beginning to wish he would write a heterosexual romance from the POV of his female protagonists as a male author writing only female/female romances is starting to feel a little icky. To be completely fair, Isoka (the protagonist here) is bisexual and has sex with both men and women, but her romance is with another woman.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Isoka lives in the slums a coastal city. She’s a mid-level mobster, ruling her given territory with a killing fist. She has two secrets. The first is an open one, she has magic which is forbidden to anyone not of noble blood or in the service of the empire. The second is better hidden, her sister living in the wealthy area of town and supported by the money Isoka earns with her magic swords and ruthless killing. And then her life is upended when a representative of the empire captures her, reveals he knows her both of her secrets, and threatens her sister if she doesn’t manage to capture and deliver the giant ship that has been collecting magic users from all over the world.
Wexler wrote in his ‘The Big Idea’ post that he wanted to tell a story about a character growing into empathy, instead of growing into power. Isoka starts out powerful, and while she may have to navigate a new power structure in the book that isn’t her main story, because Isoka also starts out as an unfeeling killing machine who has to learn empathy. It works, kind of. I don’t like the story of a person learning empathy because of the love of a woman no matter if said person is male or female. It cheapens the growth of the character, and makes it hard to believe the growth will last beyond the romance. However, Wexler also manages to avoid the trap of “I’m only good to you” kind of ’empathy’ that I see so often in these types of stories. So it’s kind of a balancing thing. I wish he’d managed to do it without making Isoka’s character arc about romance, but I can live with the fact that he did.
I have other issues.The magic system feels very RPG-esque (I have a similar issue with Brandon Sanderson’s books, so take that as you will). The emotions Isoka feel for Meroe kind of come out of nowhere, and so therefore does her character growth. Lastly, there were just one too many fight scenes, totally personal but fight scenes bore me. However, despite these issues, I really liked this book. The action moves along at a breakneck pace and the characters are all well developed and realistic. The various mysteries unfolded in ways that make sense and were answered by the end of the book despite this being the start to a series. I am looking forward to the next book.
If you’re looking for a lightly Asian flavored, magic pirate book with a bisexual protagonist then you should check this one out.