As the third book in this series has the honor of appearing on the header for this estimable blog, the Ginger Waif has decided to review Tanya Huff’s fantastic urban fantasy trilogy, Smoke. The series is a follow up to what’s probably the author’s best known work, the Blood books. There was even a TV show for a while, on Lifetime of all things. I have yet to form an opinion of it, but apparently there’s a possibility of Smoke being a show, which is both disorientingly meta and rather refreshing, as the main character was completely dropped from the Blood Ties show, presumably for being icky and gay. Anyway, I enjoy the Blood series, but Smoke is just my favorite thing.
Smoke and Shadows, Smoke and Mirrors, and Smoke and Ashes follow the adventures of Tony Foster, put-upon PA and thwarter of untoward paranormal doings. He toils away by day, and by night, and in the witching hour, really, for Darkest Night, the hokiest of hokey vampire detective shows. When he has a spare minute, and often when he does not, he attempts to save the world, or at least his immediate surroundings, from the forces of darkness. He has a vampire ex, which complicates matters, and a desperate, usually embarrassing crush on one of the lead actors. He’s a hopeless nerd. I love him very much. And it is nice to have a gay main character diversity in general and in this particular area being something Huff is strong on), which somehow makes me care more about his silly romance subplots than I normally would. Don’t know what that says about me.
I’ll start by saying I love this setup in general. One of the things about modern fantasy is that it’s a little recursive. If a story takes place in our world, it takes place in a world that’s full of nerds writing and reading fantasy stories. It’s up to a writer what to do with that. Having the main cast’s lives revolve around a terrible mess of fantastic clichés and goofy drama is a wonderful choice. It allows some great lampshade hanging, provides a masquerade for the real magic stuff going on, and is full of affectionate parody. The stories poke fun at the conventions of the genre and the foibles of its fans, but always with love.
Anyway, the plots are a little bit standard, but they’re always done well. There’re only so many scenarios, after all. There’s an evil wizard. Boom. There’s a haunted house. Deal with it. There are demons. Kabaam. The charm and excitement and humor of these books rests mostly in the characters. Some of them are definitely archetypes, but all of them are alive and breathing and even if you hate them they’re just too cool not to love.
And most of that rests on Tony. You need a good main, and too often there’s a wonderful cast of secondary characters dancing around a dull Everyman/woman. Not so here. Perhaps a lot of of my love for Tony rests in the fact that he’s a huge nerd. I like my end of the world scenarios peppered with Firefly references. He’s also oblivious, awkward, a little unbalanced, but always the hero he needs to be. He’s a sweetheart with a dark past that could make for vomit-inducing Mary Sue-osity in the wrong hands. Fortunately he’s in the right hands, and his personal tragedies are poignant, like they should be.
That’s another strength of the books. They’re hilarious and playful, and the snappy banter always has a place, but often that place is to keep the speaker from screaming. There are horribly sad and disturbing scenes. The loss of every character is felt, even when they’re dropping fast. When bad things happen, it’s wrenching and vicious, and it’s never cheapened by the goofiness, even when they’re closely juxtaposed.
(A weakness, on the other hand, is that though the characters are never callous about suffering, the sexual politics can be a little squicky. The third book features a character who can insta-seduce. Automatically. Works on every guy who’s ever been attracted to a woman. She’s not exactly considered a paragon of virtue, but the only time there’s ever a major objection is when she turns it on a guy in a wedding ring. No, that specifically isn’t okay, and yes, males of the species are often horndogs, but imagine a male character with magical date-rape powers. Yeah. There’s also a female character who gets demonized a bit much for coming between the series’ OTP, but that one’s arguable, as she’s definitely not a nice person aside from that and Tony is the POV character. He’s allowed his weaknesses. She just has a little bit of the girl-in-a-yaoi-manga syndrome. Anyway, back to the good stuff!)
So you’ve got standard urban fantasy plots with a good spin and a masterful presentation. You’ve got wonderful characters. The setting is kind of ready-made, but I actually really enjoy the sense of place. Huff is always good for local color. The Ginger Waif must admit that when she was poking at the University of B.C. for grad school purposes, the thought that Vancouver might just be full of Demonic Convergence and vampire shenanigans did come to mind. Cough. Writing, characters, world, and plot all pass muster, the strength of the people carrying any small flaws. The first book wanders a little, with every idea possible all tossed in, but the second fixes that with a very tightly-paced locked room scenario of sorts, and the third book has the whole thing really come together. I love these books. I sort of hope there are more one day, though I suppose Tony’s character arc was really wrapped up nicely at the end, with a lot of goals in the bag and lessons learned. Another adventure would be great, but maybe Tony Foster is good where he is. Whether there are future books or not, Smoke and Stuff has a place in my heart.
By the way, what happened to the covers at the end, there? I’ve included a lineup, as you’ll see. First book, spooky figure with fuzzy outlines… Looks like some evil dude doing evil magic, right? And the second book has some ghostly looking kids in slightly archaic outfits—he’s wearing noticeably more pants than in the story, but hell, I’ll let the cover artist get away with that. And… And then there’s the cover of Smoke and Ashes. Why the sudden attack of trashiness? Evil wizard. Ghosts. Cleavage. Not that the cleavage doesn’t figure in the book, but wow, gravity-defying boobs from where?
Ahem. Well, you should read all these awesome books. That is all.