Book Review: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of The Wells of Sorcery
Publisher: Tor Teen (January 22, 2019)
Length: 352 pages
I’m a huge fan of Django Wexler, but even I must concede that those saying Ship of Smoke and Steel isn’t as strong as his other work might have a point. That said, I think it’s also important to keep in mind this was published under the Tor Teen label, and despite some of its more mature themes and bloodier, more brutal moments, there’s absolutely no denying it is both written and intended for YA audiences. In some ways, this did make the story a little more predictable, not to mention it was filled with tropes to the extreme, but as long as you know what to expect, it’s still an enjoyable read.
The book follows Isoka, eighteen years old and already has made a name for herself as a minor boss of the Kahnzoka underworld, where she runs a small gang. However, what no one knows is that she uses all her money to raise her little sister, for whom she had set up a safe and sheltered life away from the ugliness of violence and poverty. But that is not the only secret Isoka is hiding, for she is also mageborn, an individual endowed with a special ability to access the Wells of Sorcery, the font of magical power.
Unfortunately, none of these are things Isoka could keep under wraps for long. When her magic is discovered, our protagonist is taken into custody where she is visited by the emperor’s right hand and offered an impossible task that she must accept because somehow, they know all about her sister. Left with no choice, Isoka is press-ganged into the service of the Soliton, a legendary ghost ship said to be haunted with monsters and crewed by hardened criminals and exiles. Surrounded by her fellow cutthroat magic-users and cruel taskmasters, Isoka has to figure out a way to seize control and complete her mission, which is to steal the Soliton and bring it and its power back to the empire to harness within a year, or else her sister’s life would be forfeit.
As you can see, even in this short description, the YA tropes are plentiful. Isoka belongs to a character type I’m sure we’ve all seen before: the strong, resourceful, rough and tough female protagonist, who is one hundred percent badass. Bonus, she’s also got a special power, that no one knows about, of course, of course. On top of being an able fighter who kills with no remorse, there’s also not much that fazes her. However, she does have a soft side, and no surprise at all, it comes in the form of a younger sibling. And predictably, it doesn’t take long for the little sister to be assigned the role of bargaining chip, as well as a means to drum up sympathy for the main character.
As the story moves forward, things also settle into a “survivor” type plotline, and there’s heavy emphasis on romance. Not saying these things are a negative, but for a book by Wexler, whose expansive world-building and character development I enjoyed immensely in both his adult series The Shadow Campaigns and his middle grade series The Forbidden Library…well, this one felt like he was playing it a bit “safe” in comparison. That said, Ship of Smoke and Steel has an edge—in more than one sense of the word. It doesn’t shy from the harsh realities of a world where only the strongest and those who aren’t afraid to take what they want can have a real chance at survival. The competition is harsh and won’t hesitate to do you harm in order to succeed, and in the face of this, it is also important for Isoka not to hold back either. It’s completely brutal and no-holds-barred, which I think YA readers thirsting for a darker flair may be able to appreciate.
Also, I enjoyed the candid exploration of the characters’ relationships and portrayal of sexuality. While I felt too much focus was placed on the romance, a point that distracted from the main plot, I liked that Meroe, the love interest who is a princess and a powerful female character in her own right, was a nice complement to Isoka and tended to bring out the softer, more sentimental side to her.
Overall, I think readers coming from Django Wexler’s previous work will find Ship of Smoke and Steel to be quite enjoyable, as I did, even though many of its elements might feel familiar or predictable. But so long as you’re prepared for some of what I call the usual YA shenanigans, it’s a pretty fun and thrilling ride. I love that the content level is also geared more towards the older end of the teen spectrum and above, so those looking for a little more grit and visceral action in their YA will revel in the fact this pulls no punches. I’m glad I got to fit this in before the end of the year to be right in time for the sequel, which I’m looking forward to reading!