Book Review: Ship of Smoke and Steel, by Django Wexler

Technically, Django Wexler’s Ship of Smoke and Steel is a YA novel.

I say “technically” because, well, I actually kinda liked it?

Or, rather, Ship of Smoke and Steel doesn’t feel like the image of a “YA novel” I’ve built up in my head. As, while the book has an 18 year old protagonist, Ship of Smoke and Steel could just as easily have been a ‘regular’ fantasy book, had Django Wexler and/or Tor decided to market it that way.


In any case, the aforementioned 18 year old protagonist is Isoka, a fugitive magic user and local crime boss. Isoka has the ability to tap into the “well of combat,” which means she can form weapons and armor out of magical energy, kind of like a stabby Green Lantern. She soon gets captured by The Empire(tm), and is blackmailed into stealing a massive ghost ship (the, uh, aforementioned Ship of Smoke and Steel, I guess).

And so, Isoka gets dumped onto said ghost ship, where she must navigate the politics of its ragtag pirate crew, fight the various greebly crab-monsters scuttling about the miles-long vessel, and maybe even romance the plucky castaway princess (who has even more forbidden magic) along the way?

I’m being a little bit pithy, I admit. The plot has a couple of twists and turns along the way, but in summary it’s pretty straightforward. For the most part, the book veers between rollicking magic action scenes and slightly awkward teenage romance, sprinkled in with little bits of setting-building and mystery. Oh, and the magic system is … vaguely Brandon Sanderson-ian, I guess? In that there are different ‘wells’ that give different powers. So there’s Speed, Combat, Fire, Force, and so on. This said, all of these elements are done well, so that’s always nice.

What ties the book together is that Wexler writes solid, compelling characters. Isoka herself really doesn’t read like a ‘standard’ YA protagonist– in the first couple of chapters, she kills a couple of people (crime boss, you know), then sleeps with one of her henchmen to work the stress off, and then, when she gets captured by The Empire, she straight-up murders said henchman to make sure her secret magic powers stay secret. Brutal. It’s a far cry from the standard “destined chosen one of destiny” business I’ve come to expect from Harry Potter derivatives or what have you.

So yeah! There’s honestly not too much to say about Ship of Smoke and Steel. It’s a fun, fast-paced little adventure that naturally sets the characters up for the inevitable sequels (the first of which came out this month, I think?). And, y’know, the book also happens to be gay as hell, as not only is a lesbian romance central to the plot, but a good chunk of the supporting characters are also in various queer relationships– which is handled quite casually, if not quite on the soapy level of, say, The Tiger’s Daughter. It all comes together in a neat little package, worth reading for anyone in the mood for a rollicking adventure that’s different from the standard fantasy novel, if not that much different.

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