Monday, 2 July 2007

The Smoke Thief

Shana Abé
Bantam Books

In eighteenth-century London, the nobility speak in whispers of the Smoke Thief. The police cannot catch him, baffled by the thefts. Only the best are taken, the rarest jewellery and the purest gems vanishing from their lockboxes. The thief must be a magician, for the police are baffled. He must be able to walk through walls…

Christoff, Marquess of Langford, knows the truth: the thief is no human, but a renegade drákon escaped from isolated Darkfrith in the north. As the ruler of those ancient, noble creatures, the duty of recapturing the runaway is his… before humanity discovers the secret and exposes the drákon.

Yet unbeknownst to him, the Smoke Thief is not a man but a woman. The first in centuries to be able to take dragon form, she is his equal in every way. As they hunt one another through the streets and sky of old London, growing ever closer, another danger rises to threaten the drákon and their ancient way of life…

First and foremost, ‘The Smoke Thief’ is a romance novel. The period setting and fantasy elements combine to evoke a sophisticated air of old-fashioned romanticism, and just as well. The relationship between Christoff and the runaway drákon Rue is cliché-ridden and on occasion veers dangerously close to Mills and Boon territory: she’s a strong-willed woman who despises his forceful nature even as she is attracted to his strength; he’s a charismatic, Byronic figure, admiring her will even as he tries to break it. The result is inevitable, and never seems anything but a foregone conclusion. Yet the romantic, heady atmosphere evoked through Shana Abé’s deft writing does much to hide the flaws, and somehow makes this well-trodden ground worth walking one more time.

‘The Smoke Thief’s London is the real star of the show; romantic and yet possessed of a Dickensian authenticity. A little too clean, perhaps, but still possessing that complex vitality for which it’s known. The novel’s opening chapters, set among the nobility and following Rue through a heist, succinctly paints a picture of intimacy and deception among the upper classes. With both hero and heroine inhabiting the nobility working class London should receive somewhat shorter shrift, but through a secondary character Abé efficiently conveys the misery and squalor of such an existence.

In comparison, the drákon lands of Darkfrith seem pale and empty. When the action shifts away from London, ‘The Smoke Thief’ loses much of its energy. The quiet of the countryside, ably evoked by Abé’s clever, poetic descriptions, feels a little disjointed and leaves the reader suddenly struggling to change down a gear.

Such scenes aren’t helped by the characters than inhabit them. Christoff and the council who help him rule the drákon have an unpleasantly fascist air to them, and his overbearing arrogance in particular seems the least likely thing to endear him to a woman… or the reader. Small wonder that Rue fled Darkfrith, but the conventions of romantic fiction seem to over-rule Christoff’s utter unsuitability as a protagonist. However, his unsympathetic nature is more than made up for by a superb piece of characterisation in the form of Rue herself. Sympathetic (apart from her inexplicable infatuation), conflicted and intriguing, she is as well-crafted as the city in which she thrives.

The rest of the plot is paper thin, and fades into insignificance against the romance between the leads. And while there may be nothing innovative about that particular tale, in ‘The Smoke Thief’ Shana Abé tells it with flair enough that any flaws might be forgiven.

This review was originally written for