I enjoy reading stories about demonic possession—particularly stuff that departs from the more conventional ones set in our world—and Smoke & Summons approaches possession from a different angle indeed. Charlie Holmberg’s story is about someone who has been victimized and enslaved trying to escape her captor even as she discovers she might be part of a much bigger plot. Set against the backdrop of a somewhat authoritarian and isolationist state, there’s more going on in this novel than meets the eye. Thanks to NetGalley and 47North for the eARC.
Sandis Gwenwig thinks she has lost almost everyone she cares about. She’s a vessel for a powerful spirit—or numina—named Ireth. This isn’t a good thing. It’s heretical, for one. And it’s also a result of being pretty much enslaved by an occult-obsessed criminal named Kazen. At his command, Sandis transforms into a flaming horse that will do his bidding. And the one day, she goes on the run. She falls in with an unlikely ally, Rone, who has his own problems. The two of them try to evade Kazen and his minions, and Sandis desperately seeks the sole living relative she thinks she has. Yet the city of Dresberg is not so easy to get lost in….
This book was pretty captivating, not going to lie. I read it over the course of two days and there were moments I didn’t want to put it down. I don’t want to exaggerate this (because on balance I’d say this book is good but not great), but if you are in the mood for a thriller-type, elude-capture fantasy, Smoke & Summons might give you the goods. If you’re looking more for a fantasy story where the hero masters their abilities and exploits them against their former captors, then I would look elsewhere.
That’s actually probably the most disappointing facet of this book, and it’s where I’ll start before I get into what I liked. Basically, there is something going on between Sandis and Ireth. Vessels aren’t supposed to remember what happens when they are possessed. Yet Sandis occasionally does, and she feels like Ireth is trying to communicate with her. Then, in the middle of the book, she desperately tries summoning Ireth into herself—and it works, kind of. It’s a pretty intense and badass scene. Yet Holmberg doesn’t delve much further into this. Then the book ends on a massive cliffhanger, and I’m not happy about that.
Smoke & Summons is a bit like an episode of Doctor Who: it’s fairly evenly split between exposition and running, with a lot of exposition mixed up with running, and the infrequent confrontation with foes. This works well for a TV show like Doctor Who. For the first book in a trilogy, it’s less enticing for me, especially when paired with the cliffhanger ending. The confrontation with Kazen at the end doesn’t really feel like a resolution in any sense of the word. I already requested the sequel on NetGalley, so I’m going to read it—and probably enjoy it—but I’m going to be a little grumpy about this for a bit.
Grump-mode aside, here’s what I think Holmberg gets right.
First, the romance—or lack thereof. I mean, there’s obviously some tension between Sandis and Rone—and that’s why I’m really pleased Holmberg doesn’t take it any further, at least not right now. They’ll probably end up together by the end of the books, unless Rone does something silly like sacrifice himself for her (roll eyes here). For now, though, I can entertain the happy delusion that their relationship will remain platonic, and that would be enough for me. Indeed, I like how they leave things off at the end of the book, the way their relationship appears to be damaged quite irreparably as a result of Rone’s actions. Although what he does is awful, Holmberg clearly still wants us to sympathize with him, and I do—to an extent.
Second, Sandis is a very determined protagonist. It’s tempting to dismiss her because she never does much with the power inherent in her, nor does she seem to have much of an idea of what to do to find her elusive relative. Yet I’m OK with that. The whole focus of this novel is on being a fugitive and how stressful this is. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that Sandis has spent the last five years or so of her life enslaved and at the mercy of an abuser. She has worked hard to keep her head down and not be defiant so as to avoid punishment. Running is somewhat out of character for her, and it is taking her a lot of time to adjust to these new challenges. What matters more is that she remains so steadfast in her goals despite the obstacles arrayed in her path.
Ultimately, Holmberg succeeds in making me care about this story and what’s happening beyond it. (There’s clearly a wider, more sociopolitical plot here, one in which Sandis is embroiled against her will, and I want to know more about it.) Smoke & Summons uses a lot of the very familiar tropes of fantasy, from the way Dresberg is laid out to the ever-present corrupt fantasy police and the pseudo-papal religious figure of the Celestial. Yet it also jazzes up or refreshes some tropes; I like how Holmberg approaches the whole summoning thing. There are parts of the story that drag, and I like said above, I’m grumpy about the ending. But that’s how it goes.