Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel Review


Goodreads: Ship of Smoke and Steel
Series: The Wells of Sorcery #1
Source: Library
Published: January 22, 2019

Official Summary

In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent 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.

Star Divider


Ship of Smoke and Steel is a refreshingly different YA fantasy.  Certainly it has some familiar elements: the trained killer protagonist who wields dual blades and has a rare type of magic, who must complete an impossible task in order to protect the sister she loves.   However, the execution of the novel is so original, so unusually dark that I found myself gripped by the story, even when I didn’t necessarily want to be.

YA novels are not strangers to darkness.  People routinely comment on the darkness of The Hunger Games, for instance, yet The Hunger Games has a sense of morality, an underlying optimism, and some ridiculousness embodied by the Capitol that keeps it (gruesome deaths of children aside) sort of on the lighter side. Ship of Smoke and Steel doesn’t have that.

To begin, protagonist Isoka is really a killer.  She kills people and has no qualms about it.  Killing people is a means to an end, and she will kill people she likes if it seems necessary to her.  This is very different from protagonists like Katniss who kill rarely and reluctantly and from the hordes of trained assassin protagonists in YA who seem to, frankly, not really assassinate that many people.  Isoka is brutal and halfway to being a sociopath. (She does become more human as the story progresses, forming some bonds with other people on the ship.)

The setting is also dark. Literally and in the sense that it’s so confined, it’s almost a claustrophobic experience for the reader.  The Soliton is enormous, so there are changes of scenery, but you never forget that the characters are confined on a ship with no way off.

Finally, there is a lot of death in the book, as well as magic related to death and spirits.  I genuinely thought I might have nightmares after reading this book, and that’s not a thing I worry about frequently when reading YA.

However, there are some elements of the world building that could have been better and, frankly, that I think would have been addressed by a really expert fantasy writer. For instance, mostly everyone on Soliton lives below deck and practically never goes up. Isoka mentions that there are no windows or natural lighting.  In the real world, this would do disastrous things to people’s sleep schedules.  There also seems to be three main types of food on board: crab, mushrooms, and bread (made of mushroom).  This obviously would result in nutritional issues that are simply never mentioned. Scurvy, anyone?  Issues like these aren’t deal breakers, but they’re obvious world building holes that really deserved to be addressed. The best fantasy looks beyond asking “What would be a cool or atmospheric feature of my world” and really engages with what the consequences of those features are.

So, the world is interesting and the protagonist is actually a ruthless, self-centered killer, not a one who’s dressed up to be more palatable and relatable to readers.  The plot is more hit or miss.  There are definitely several mysteries that come up that I was interested in finding out more about.  This starts at the beginning when readers don’t even know what Soliton is, besides a mysterious legendary ship. The mysteries only build up once Isoka is on board, and readers still don’t know everything when this book ends.  The sense of suspense and missing pieces that need to be found is strong. At other times, however, the plot does engage in elements that will be familiar to many readers, and it’s the details of their execution that have to dress them up.

Ship of Smoke and Steel was a refreshing read for me.  The experience was not necessarily “fun,” as a lot of things about it were dark and depressing.  However, I did feel as if I were reading something different and as if I were finally getting a more honest depiction of the “killer protagonist” trope.  Interestingly, I’m not totally invested in reading the sequel, even though I do somewhat wonder what happens next and what mysteries of the ship will be revealed. Perhaps this is just because the reading experience was so intense, and I may be ready for book 2 once it’s finally released in a year or so.  I do recommend Ship of Smoke and Steel, however.

4 stars Briana


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9 thoughts on “Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

  1. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    I’m not sure I want to pick up something dark enough that it almost gave you nightmares, but I appreciate that the author actually committed to the protagonist who was a killer. I have noticed that this often isn’t done believably in YA.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes! I think a lot of killer or assassin YA protagonists are kind of made more cheerful and palatable, and maybe we focus on their general skills (like stealth or strength), but not actually on the fact that they, you know, frequently kill people. This was such a unique, more realistic representation. But, yeah, the book is really dark. It wasn’t necessarily a fun experience, which is part of the reason I wouldn’t necessarily read the sequel.


  2. Annemieke says:

    I think I might like this. I’m glad that the mc is an actual assassin because I was getting tired of the wannabe assassins. Putting it on my wishlist a little higher. 🙂 Thanks for your great review.


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