A captivating world of monsters and magic from the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Paper Magician Series.
As a human vessel for an ancient spirit, Sandis lives no ordinary life. At the command of her master, she can be transformed against her will into his weapon—a raging monster summoned to do his bidding. Unlike other vessels, Sandis can host extremely powerful spirits, but hosting such creatures can be fatal. To stay alive, she must run. And in a city fueled by smoke and corruption, she finds a surprising ally.
A cunning thief for hire, Rone owns a rare device that grants him immortality for one minute every day—a unique advantage that will come in handy in Sandis’s fight for freedom. But Sandis’s master knows how powerful she is. He’s determined to get her back, and he has the manpower to find her, wherever she runs.
Now, to outwit her pursuers, Sandis must put all her trust in Rone and his immortal device. For her master has summoned more than mere men to hunt her down…
Charlie N. Holmberg writes just the type of books that I like, so I knew going into this one that there was a high chance of me loving it–and I’m happy to say that wound up being the case.
Smoke & Summons has some fantastic world-building. This book takes place in a city that was built on the ruins of an ancient city. There are artifacts and old magics left over from this old civilization, but most people don’t pay attention to that, they just go about living their lives. The place is crowded and filled with pollution, the air literally raining down sludge to the point that only the very rich can afford to have white buildings and keep them white. Status seems to be an important factor. The very wealthy can afford to do whatever they want because the justice system is completely corrupted and you can literally buy your way out of trouble. There is a jail that is so overcrowded that they regularly purge it’s prisoners in the form of execution–it’s definitely somewhere you don’t want to end up unless you have the means to bribe an official to get you out. Oh, and you can leave the city but you can’t just leave the country. You have to get special paperwork in order to leave and it’s very expensive and hard to come by, so most of the population is literally stuck there. I thought this aspect of the world was really intriguing and it also makes circumstances that much harder for our characters.
The magic in this was pretty cool too. There are a couple of different things going on here. First, there are many people in a the ‘underground’ who use illegal forms of magic, one of which is summoning, and one of the strongest of these people is Sandis’ master, Kazen. He has several slaves, most of them children, whose bodies are able to be used in a ritual where powerful beings from another plane are called to manifest in this world to do the summoner’s bidding. When the beings take over the vessels, the children, lose consciousness and they can’t remember anything when they come back to themselves, or any of the horrible things that they may have been forced to do. The other kind of magic is artifacts with magical properties that seem to be left over from the ancient civilization the city was built over. We get hints that these things are related, but that may be a mystery to be solved in later books.
The characters in this are great, but that’s not a surprise because characters are a strength of the author’s. I really loved Sandis. She’s a character that always tries to do the right thing and feels bad when she can’t do anything to help, even though her own circumstances are so bad. And, despite those circumstances, and all the bad things that have happened to her, she’s not completely devoid of hope. It would be so easy just to give up in a situation like that, but she keeps on pushing forward. Then we meet Rone–he’s a bit of a rascal. He doesn’t follow the rules, but he seems to have a good motivation behind his actions. When he and Sandis meet, he has a battle with himself on whether to help her out, but in the end his conscious wins out. Now Rone has two major problems he needs to solve. Rone is also more jaded and cynical than Sandis–it wasn’t hard at all for me to empathize with him. I really loved their relationship–the way their personalities brushed against one another made for an interesting dynamic. The way things played out was not at all what I expected, so kudos to the author for that! I’m keen on seeing what’s next for them.
I feel like Kazen is a nice step forward for Holmberg’s villains, which in the past I’ve found very mustache-twirly (that’s not a bad thing, but sometimes you do like to see a little more motive). Kazen is every bit a mad scientist of a dark wizard. He’s also a thug akin to something of a mob boss. He uses the beings/spirits from the astral plane to intimidate others in the city into falling in line with his plans and giving him whatever he wants. He’s powerful, has a ton of resources, and is absolutely ruthless in his pursuit of his plans. We don’t know exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing but we do at least find out what he’s up to eventually–and it’s something that has dire consequences not only for our protagonist as the strongest of his vessels, but also for the city if this power is able to be unleashed. He’s still mostly a one-dimensional villain, but at least there’s a little more depth to him than previous villains she’s written.
Overall, I had a great time reading this one and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. 4.5/5 stars.