Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg
I have to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s the tale of Sandis, a young woman who has the ability to act as vessel to otherworldly creatures known as numina, and tells of her attempt to escape the slavery she finds herself in as a result of this ‘gift’. Helping her along the way is Rone, a streetwise burglar and thief with a magical secret of his own, while working against her is the summoner Kazen, the man who kept her locked up in his underworld lair. The story gallops along at a fair pace, with very few places for the protagonists to catch their breath, and along with the main plot there are also a few secondary elements woven through the narrative involving Rone’s mother getting locked up for a crime he committed and Sandis’ search for an uncle she never knew she had. There’s a lot going on in those 300 or so pages.
One of the things I like about this book is the worldbuilding. The action takes place in a densely populated and smoke-filled city built on the ruins of an ancient and mystical civilisation, where corruption is rife and magic (or the occult, as it’s called) is illegal, making Sandis’ very existence as a vessel a crime. Of course, this means she can’t just turn to the authorities for help, but she can’t flee the city either; emigration is tightly controlled, requiring prohibitively expensive papers in order to leave.
The protagonists are interesting, though there is a sense that Sandis doesn’t have a huge amount of agency of her own. As a slave and a vessel, a lot of the action surrounding her is directed at her as opposed to by her, though that isn’t to say she’s entirely pliant. Indeed, it’s the very fact of her decision to escape captivity in the first instance that sets the entire narrative rolling, and there are several instances where Sandis’ actions get her and Rone out of various scrapes. As for the bad guy, he may be built around the stereotypical mad-scientist mould but Holmberg does present him well.
There are a few twists and turns within the narrative that I sort of saw coming ahead of time, and a few that caught me completely by surprise. If I have any criticism of this book it’s of the way in which it ends so abruptly. Yes, it’s the first in a series, but for me the ending felt a little too forced, a little too contrived. But that’s just a minor niggle, and if anything it’s made me even more eager to read book two when it comes out in April.
All in all this a cracking read, and well worth a look if you get the chance.