Tor Teen, 2019, 352 pages
Ship of Smoke and Steel is the launch of Django Wexler's cinematic, action-packed epic fantasy Wells of Sorcery trilogy.
In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, 18-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on. When Isoka's magic is discovered by the government, she's arrested and brought to the Emperor's spymaster, who sends her on an impossible mission: Steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship - a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.
On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship's mysterious captain, but to do it, she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn't expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.
"The ____ of ____ and ____" is a portentous template of a book title, and Ship of Smoke and Steel slots into a lot of templates. It's a tropey tropefest of YA tropes, and manages to actually be a pretty fun action-adventure even if it is just a juvenile power fantasy that stops at all the Diversity Stations of the Cross on its way to the end of the first book in a trilogy.
Fantasy X-Men in a Crapsack World
Isoka is our protagonist. She's "mage-born" in a crapsack city where aristocratic mage-borns become loyal, privileged servants of the Emperor, while commoners with magical talent are just abducted and used as breeding stock to spawn more mage-born soldiers for the Blessed Empire.
Admittedly, the part about being locked in a room and gang-raped to keep you pregnant for the rest of your life was Isoka's version, which she heard on the streets, so it may not actually be true, but this is the setup to explain why Isoka carefully hides her magical abilities.
There's a Brandon Sanderson vibe to Django Wexler's worldbuilding. Magic comes from different "Wells," each one giving a special ability, and few mages have access to more than one. Magery is something you're born with, but experienced mages can learn to wield their abilities more skillfully. Only a few mages are full "Adepts."
Isoka, of course, is an Adept, with the Well of "Melos" or combat magic. This manifests as the ability to conjure crackling green energy blades and magical armor. In this particular crapsack dystopian fantasy world, Isoka lives in the city of Kahnzoka and works as a ward boss. She's an enforcer for the local underworld, and despite being a teenage girl who somehow terrorizes the entire ward and scares other hardened criminals, she has managed to keep the magic she uses to actually accomplish this secret. Because it's totally believable that a teenage girl could beat up gangs of hardened criminals twice her size without magic. So basically, Isoka is X-23, and the rest of the book does feel a bit like a grimdark X-Men story.
Early in the book, Isoka actually crosses what I considered to be a moral event horizon: an innocent barmaid who witnessed her using her magic against some holdouts who weren't paying up begs for her life, and Isoka coldly murders her anyway. Not long after this, she does the same to her own lieutenant and lover.
The rest of the book shows Isoka being forced to become a hero. She's told by the ghost of her murdered lover that "I always thought you were better than the world we were forced to live in. I'm glad you got a chance to prove it." Uh, well, I see what the author was trying to do, but I found it unconvincing. Sorry, kiddo, you murdered innocent people in cold blood to protect your secret, you don't get to be a hero just because you eventually learn to feel a little bit guilty about it.
All of Isoka's dirty work has been done to keep her little sister Tori safe. Tori lives in a nice house with servants and tutors raising her to be a lady, while Isoka works the streets earning the money to pay for her sister's pampered lifestyle. Eventually Isoka is captured by the Emperor's spymaster, who knows everything about her and Tori and basically gives her a Mission Impossible or else Tori will get sold off as a sex slave.
The mission? There's this "ghost ship" called the Soliton that sails from port to port collecting tributes of mage-born crew, who are never seen again. Apparently the last city that refused to pay tribute mysteriously burned to the ground, so nobody refuses. Isoka will be the next tribute, and she's to somehow capture the Soliton and bring it back to the Empire.
Mission Improbable indeed. Once she gets on board the Soliton, she finds it's yet another crapsack world, but a pretty familiar one, so she starts making friends and enemies while working her way up the Soliton's power structure and also discovering she's bi.
The Diversity Stations of the Cross
It's implied, by the cultural references, descriptions of the people and their dress, and the cover art, that Isoka's people are "Asian," but this (probably) isn't Earth so it's more like she's "Asian-coded," as the kids today say. Most of the other people on board the Soliton are implied to be "Asian" or "Middle Eastern" though there are a few far-northern "Icelings" with pale skin.
One of the "Middle Eastern" (again, no Earthly geographical or linguistic references, but based on physical and cultural descriptions) characters is Princess Meroe, who is super-hot and Isoka, despite being pretty straight and kind of slutty until now, quickly realizes that she super wants to kiss her. Much of the rest of the story thus follows the predictable path of Oh my gosh, I am such a horrible dark monster inside and this sweet kind princess could never love someone like me even if she is into girls which she probably isn't. (Spoiler: she is.)
Meroe's Well, incidentally, is healing magic, which you'd think would be pretty useful and respectable except that it turns out everyone hates healers, because like a hundred years ago, a bunch of healers unleashed some sort of magical mutating virus that killed a city. So now healers have to keep it a secret lest they get lynched, because everyone thinks of healers as vile, disgusting abominations you don't want touching you...
Wow, could that metaphor be any less subtle?
So we gotcher girl power, we gotcher POCs, we gotcher GLBQ, we also gotcher anti-ableism when Princess Meroe, because of her patience and kindness, realizes that the silent draftee everyone called "The Moron" is in fact quite intelligent and literate, but deaf and dumb and not fluent in anyone else's language. What are we missing? Oh, right, consent politics! See, on board the Soliton, this pirate hive of scum and villainy where the strong wipe their boots on the weak, it's totally okay to casually behead a little girl who threatened you after you murdered her brother, but the author makes a point of a strict rule against rape that everyone obeys. So you might be brutally murdered for giving lip to the wrong person, but at least no one will sexually assault you.
Do I sound a little cynical? Do I mock? Maybe just a tiny bit.
A Pretty Good D&D Adventure
In a lot of ways, mostly good ways, The Ship of Smoke and Steel is a classic D&D adventure. Morally ambiguous heroine from the streets has to pull off an impossible mission to save her sister, so she forms a party and goes on a dungeon crawl to uncover the mystery of the Soliton before they all die. They fight an escalating series of boss monsters, take a few party casualties, and then confront the Big Bads, who are always other PCs rather than monsters.
However, this adventure actually reminded me more of an old school game called Metamorphosis Alpha. Metamorphosis Alpha is set on board the starship Warden, a generation ship that no one remembers is a ship. Its levels are full of monsters and mutants and weird ancient "artifacts."
The Soliton is a gigantic ship made of steel, built by the "Ancients," with so many levels and so much space that it has entire unexplored regions. Nobody knows how the mysterious "Captain" makes decisions or decides where the ship will go next (I figured out the mystery behind the Captain almost as soon as he was mentioned), but for the rest of the book, Isoka's discoveries about the Soliton made me think, hmm, this sounds a lot like one of those old-school fantasy series set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where technology gets described as magic. The ending of the book does not settle this, but I can make several predictions about the Big Reveals to come.
Despite my cynical take on the checkbox-ticking that is basically de rigueur for YA nowadays, I did enjoy this book for what it was, a kick-ass fantasy superhero dungeon crawl with a bit of queer romance pasted on. There were quite a few characters, most of whom were interesting and some of whom survived to the end of the book, and if I still think Isoka's redemption arc is incomplete, she's at least on her way to being a hero. Also, I ship her with the hot murderous pirate prince who beheads little girls, but he probably only gets to bang her the one time. I will actually continue this series, which is more than I can say for most in this genre.
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