They sneaked Shana Abé’s Smoke Thief by me in the fantasy section – had it been where it (sort of) properly belonged, in with the romances, I would never have cracked the cover. But it was in fantasy, and had a great title, and the premise – a (beautiful, of course) young woman making her unique way in Georgian London as a jewel thief, who apparently steals the wrong jewel and is stalked by the (handsome, of course) owner – sounded like fun. I like charming and accomplished fictional thieves. Case in point: John Robie.
And now Rue, the heroine of Smoke Thief. I hated the historical-recap beginning; it bordered on purple, and is why I had as much trouble as I did getting into the story. But it’s fairly necessary information, and soon over, followed by another vignette closer in time to the story, nicely showing the youth of and demonstrating the difficulties for the two main characters.
And then we’re off at the gallop into the story, in which Clarissa Hawthorne has escaped a miserable childhood as a half-breed in a society which does not tolerate half-breeds. She comes from a small, secret English village which is held by the drákon, who once were purely draconian in form and function but who have adapted to their perilous existence by learning human form. Appearance of humanity isn’t acceptance of humanity, though – they are, of course, far superior to mere humans, and any intermingling of the races leads to, at best, ostracism for all concerned. But it is generally held to be better to remain in the village as a despised adjunct to the clan than to flee the village and be hunted down and executed – because only the highest ranking of the drákon are allowed to leave, for fear of exposure.
Except Clarissa has left, and is living the life she wants as Rue. Until the Right Honourable Christoff René Ellery Langford, Earl of Chasen (aka Kit) shows up … He is the head of the tribe, and is responsible for a) retrieving the jewel stolen from the tribe (jewels having a similar effect on the drákon to drugs), and b) retrieving this person who somehow escaped from the tribe’s strictures. When he finds out that the runner in question is a woman, and one who can successfully change shape, the priorities shift. Centuries after they learned to take human shape, the drákon are finding it more difficult to shake it off: men normally grow into the ability to change their form to smoke and to drákon (dragon), but women seem to be losing the knack – and the head of the tribe must mate with a woman who can shift.
Enter the romance portion of our story. It’s a different twist on a classic romance theme – two (excessively beautiful) people who are going to marry (and, er, etc.) whether they both like it or not – and Rue very much doesn’t. Except when she does. She loved Kit when they were both children, but she was (almost) beneath his notice; now she hates and fears the idea of being dragged back to the village and forced to – best case scenario – go back to the restricted life she once had … and, worst case, face imprisonment or execution. She’s forced into the union – but she likes it. And happily ever etc. Classic romance.
But it was really not awful. Some of the writing rose above what I expect of a romance, certainly, and even what I expect of a fantasy novel; the characters were believable and not paper cutouts. I liked the conception of the drákon and how they were integrated into what would otherwise be a well-written romance novel – it takes it off the romance shelf in my library (which actually is just a shameful little section of “fiction”) and moves it, as Books & Co had it, firmly into fantasy.
There are sequels; I probably won’t buy them new (sorry), but will at some point when I don’t feel like I’ve spent an absurd amount of money on myself put some effort into finding the ones I don’t have (one was at a library sale last year – yay). What I wonder is whether there is so very much of a subgenre of romances with such strong fantasy elements. I know there are lots – and lots – AND lots of vampires out there, but this … this was different. I liked this.