Book Review: Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

The sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller that was “made for fans of Victoria Aveyard and Sabaa Tahir” ( Bustle ), Lady Smoke is an epic new fantasy about a throne cruelly stolen and a girl who must fight to take it back for her people. 

The Kaiser murdered Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen, when Theo was only six. He took Theo’s country and kept her prisoner, crowning her Ash Princess–a pet to toy with and humiliate for ten long years. That era has ended. The Kaiser thought his prisoner weak and defenseless. He didn’t realize that a sharp mind is the deadliest weapon.

Theo no longer wears a crown of ashes. She has taken back her rightful title, and a hostage–Prinz Soren. But her people remain enslaved under the Kaiser’s rule, and now she is thousands of miles away from them and her throne.

To get them back, she will need an army. Only, securing an army means she must trust her aunt, the dreaded pirate Dragonsbane. And according to Dragonsbane, an army can only be produced if Theo takes a husband. Something an Astrean Queen has never done.

Theo knows that freedom comes at a price, but she is determined to find a way to save her country without losing herself.

A darkly enchanting page-turner you won’t be able to put down.” –-Bustle on Ash Princess, Book 1 in the Ash Princess series


ARC Review by Nicole Yao:

General thoughts 

Lady Smoke is the much-anticipated sequel to Ash Princess. Here we follow Theo immediately after the events of book one, where she is whisked away by her long lost pirate aunt to a wealthy kingdom with the plan to marry her off to the highest bidder in order to save Astrea. Despite her lingering traumas she is determined to win back her country and free her people but to do this she will need an army strong enough to stand against the Kaiser. Freedom always comes with a price but with deceptions, murder and her own feelings to contend with Theo and her friends find out just how steep that price can be.   

I started Lady Smoke with no expectations but despite this, I was still disappointed. This story felt like a hodgepodge of popular YA tropes plus a good amount of diversity and representation thrown in for good measure but without the focus and depth, I was hoping for. Mostly this is due to the fact that we are following Theo’s POV.  

That being said the plot itself was interesting enough and there were some events that surprised me. I also loved all the side characters who seem to have more substance than Theo a fact that strengthens my belief that if this were written in a multiple POV style it would have been a stronger story. 

The worldbuilding aspect was just enough as well. I never felt like I was reading info dumps about Astrea and the other countries. It also helped that we got to see some of the cultures through the suitors.  I also liked the themes that were tackled such as moral codes, abuse, good vs evil, family dynamics, friendship, none binary representation and self-discovery / Coming of age. 

All in all I think it had the potential to be a great story but there was just something lacking. I would still recommend this series to people who are new to YA fantasy and want an easy formulaic read.

In summary as a book overview:

Pros

  • A diverse cast of characters 
  • Gender representation
  • Relevant themes
  • Has a central romance plot essential to the story
  • Relatable characters
  • Good plot build-up

Cons 

  • Relevant themes were not explored properly 
  • Theo was very unlikeable as a character
  • The middle portion of the story was dragging/meandering
  • The ending “plot twist” was unsatisfying

My star Rating

I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t a bad book I just really disliked Theo’s personality and the predictability of some of the events. Will I continue on to book 3? Maybe, just to round off the trilogy but it’s not a priority for me. 

More in-depth thoughts

*** Please note that my in-depth thoughts will touch on spoilers so if you plan to read the series please skip ahead to my “on writing” segment. (You have been warned)***   

What I liked: 

A Diverse Cast of Characters 

What I appreciate about this book is how diversity was not the selling point. What I mean about this is it wasn’t marketed as a “diverse read” to get public attention rather, it was treated as a normal thing and the characters were more than their diverse roles. They were people with lives and troubles and hobbies. Though I wished Theo interacted with them more so we could have more of their story development. 

Dragonsbane 

I feel like a lot of people hate Theo’s Aunt but really her character made so much sense to me. She understood compromise and was villainized for it. She also calls Theo out on her childishness and self-importance which is always a plus. She also brought up a very important topic about how in Theo’s mind her mother was perfect and how as children we idolize our parents when in reality even they are only human. They make mistakes just like everyone else. Theo’s mother made a mistake and died for it all because she dismissed her sisters warning but Dragonsbane loved her sister all the same. I feel like that aspect wasn’t discussed properly through Theo’s narrative. She still did not want to come into terms with her mother’s humanity instead, concentrating on the fact that it wouldn’t have made a difference if Astrea had been prepared for an attack (which is BS by the way their people literally had elemental magic)

Erik 

 Besides being a Pansexual (because whoohoo Pan Representation!) he is also the new Emperor of Goraki. I liked Erik as a character even in the first book and was pleasantly surprised when he made his entrance as one of the suitors competing for Theo’s hand. I liked how he can be honest with Theo and that he serves as a bridge between her and Soren. In a way, he helped humanize Soren despite what he did with the berserkers.

Good vs Evil 

Though it was overly simplified I liked how Theo’s mindset is slowly moving towards understanding that the world isn’t black and white. Right now even at the end of book two, she is still associating her “bad manipulative behavior” as being like the Kaiser or being like her Suitors who just want the magic in Astrea when in reality being a ruler means making hard decisions even if sometimes there are no perfect answers. The same can be said about Soren with the way he desperately did not want to be like his father. Which brings up the question – Who or what determines good and evil and can you really be defined by your actions vs your intentions? 

Soren 

 Soren is the perfect foil for Theo and I hate the fact that he was written as a simple-minded lovesick coward but I guess that was his character arc in a way. I love their growing relationship and the way he accepts her despite her flaws and sees the “dark parts of her soul” and understands that sometimes people do “bad” things out of necessity and circumstance because he has been in that position. In my mind, this book doesn’t really have a love triangle because it’s very clear that Theo will eventually come to accept her feelings for Soren and by doing so she will also come to accept the parts of her that need to make sacrifices that do not make one conventionally good.   

What I didn’t like: 

Fake Feminism Vibes 

 Throughout the first half of this book, we are constantly thrown feminism themes or well what seems like feminism themes but then it turns to borderline misandry. All the men get thrown into 2 camps either they are Pig headed, condescending jerks (or judged to be one) or strong, handsome and chivalrous but still dangerous and can’t be trusted. I hate the concept that in order to lift up your own beliefs you have to spit on someone else’s and shrug off valid concerns regardless of gender or sex. Also for a book that beats you on the head with the “women aren’t objects” and “women don’t need men” themes the whole plot revolves around the concept of getting married and having romantic relationships with the only 2 none blatant pig-headed men in the story. 

Representation Confusion 

As I mentioned before there is gender representation in this book which is great! But what I did not like is the fact that despite it being stated that it’s accepted and normal in Astrea and parts of the world people are still skittish about it, especially Theo. There was still awkwardness which caused me to question if it was indeed normal even Erik was a bit shy about asking if Heron liked boys. This is one part of the world-building that I feel needs more work.

The battle and the ending 

From book 1 it has always been built up that Theo will kill the Kaiser or at least have him killed and then burn him BUT when the battle (which only lasted a few pages?) happened and we do get that scene as a result of all the tension and buildup Cress kills the Kaiser with her fire powers seemingly on a whim and becomes the new enemy? It was just so unsatisfying and anti-climactic. Also, she takes Soren as a prisoner and ultimately reduced her whole motivation of revenge to “you took the boy I wanted to marry so now I am taking him back” there wasn’t even any mention of her father. 

No Real Risks 

Another recurring theme throughout the book was the concept of sacrifice. To get Asrea back. To become a queen. Even the whole suitor plot was meant to be the ultimate sacrifice but Theo skirts through every one of them. Even in the first book when she was supposed to kill Soren, she couldn’t and again in this book she was supposed to kill Blasie – she chose to be responsible for his death because he was a threat but it didn’t happen. Every time Theo is faced with a tough decision one of the other characters swoops in and takes the risk-off her hands. Blasie called her out on this fact in the book though, which is another reason why I think the author intentionally wrote Theo’s character this way but still it has been 2 books thus far and it felt like her character growth plateaued along with the overarching plot in this book.  

Theo’s Character

A large part of my disappointment in this story lies with Theo herself or more accurately that she is the POV character we follow throughout the book. She was unlikable in every sense – childishly naïve, selfish, and self-important – to the point where I questioned if the author consciously wrote her that way. I understand that the whole point of this was to show the moral grayness of her character but she was just too much. She reclaims her title as queen and uses it to her advantage every chance she gets yet she continues to do irresponsible things like roaming around the palace in the middle of the night with an unknown assassin on the loose or the fact that she blatantly manipulates her childhood friend, who obviously has romantic feelings for her, to stay by her side despite the fact that because of his unstable abilities (mine Madness) he is a danger not only to her but the entire palace. I was left questioning multiple times in the story why anyone would follow her let alone go into battle against an enemy better felt alone. 

I understand why Theo is the way she is, as I’ve mentioned it’s all part of the coming of age theme and finding the delicate balance of who we are and who we need to be but Theo did not have any redeeming qualities for me to root for her. She was not competent, likable nor proactive in her own narrative which begs the question of why did the author choose to write this story through her POV. 

On Writing

Protagonists vs Main Characters – often times people interchange these two terms or think of them as the same thing when in fact they are not, in the sense that you can have a wide cast of main characters but only have one or two protagonists. The main character is the focus of the story, meaning the story explores their life, background, relationships, and hardships but a protagonist is the one that drives the story forward. They are the ones that actively make decisions to RESPOND rather than REACT to their problems (a.k.a. the plot)  

Let’s take Lady Smoke as an example: The reason why I had an issue with Theo was that though we are in her viewpoint she does not actively drive the plot forward. From book 1 where even though she decided to escape and not be under the Kaisers thumb anymore, it was still Blasie and the others that got her out and made plans. It was only at the midpoint of book 2 that Theo truly took her story into her own hands and made a plan of her own. She was no longer at the mercy of the other characters around her and consequently the plot. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


I write YA books and I’m also entrusted with taking care of other people’s children. I write books about girls who are strong in all different ways, usually with a healthy dollop of magic and a few dragons.

I live in NYC with my extraordinarily fluffy dog, Neville.


About Nicole Yao 


gdhfghfgNicole is a combination of well-worn sandals, over-steeped mint tea leaves and sand found in tropical beaches given a breath of life by baked goods and delicious dishes. When she isn’t reading she can be found hopping into whatever newly found rabbit hole that catches her fancy. (Be warned she may obsessively talk about said rabbit hole when you cross paths) 

Social media handles: Goodreads | Instagram         

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