In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on.
When Isoka's magic is discovered by the government, she's arrested and brought to the Emperor's spymaster, who sends her 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.
On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship's mysterious captain, but to do it she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn't expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.
First, the caveat. I've met Django Wexler several times and found him to be a nice person. NIce enough and interesting enough that I went out and bought his book. Uh, several years ago.
The thing is, books migrate in my house. Sometimes they go to Kat's house, or wander off with a grand-daughter, or get shuffled from the to-read stack to a different stack that may involve coffee cups or laundry or a manuscript of something I'm going to finish writing someday. Anyway, I think I bought this one in 2019, just as Covid was scrambling everyone's lives.
But somehow, it floated to the top of a stack of stuff and I went, "Oh, there you are! I did buy you!"
And I read it. And liked it very much.
I think I'd give this book 5 stars just for the totally unexpected setting. Although the story does not begin on a ship, when it shifts there, it's one of the most bizarre maritime settings I've ever read. And it's not just the physical setting. The social strata within the ship are fierce and unforgiving.
The protagonist Isoka is an adept of one of the wells of magic. There are nine of them and each conveys to the user a different realm of power. Isoka is strong in hers, and it enables her to manifest both weapons and armor as she needs them. Her territory is the streets and her magic has enabled to make her fairly powerful there.
But, of course, there is always someone more powerful. And Isoka finds that instead of the game master, she is suddenly a pawn for someone else. And if she fails, she will lose the only thing she values above her life.
There is a lot of action, a thread of romance and the plot and character development moves forward swiftly. The growth of the characters is convincing, and the cast is nicely varied.
Tor marketed this as a Tor Teen. I disagree. Well, teens can certainly read this book and enjoy it, but the 'teen' label may put off some adult readers of fantasy. I'd put it on the 'anyone who likes fantasy' shelf.
This book is the first of The Wells of Sorcery trilogy. Don't let that discourage you. Because of its sojourn in my house, the other two books are readily available to eager readers.
This book wasn't even on my radar until I picked up a free ARC at YALLfest, and it sounded super intriguing so I thought I'd give it a go. I also thought for some reason it was an Asian fantasy (it is sooo not), so I was excited to read it. I hadn't heard much about it, either, so I didn't know what to expect. Sadly, I ended up being disappointed.
The main issue I had was with our main character. I hated her. In the beginning, she's a TERRIBLE person. She kills people for a living, basically, but she feels absolutely nothing!! No remorse whatsoever. She doesn't seem to care about anyone but herself. She even kills someone that she's been working with for four years without batting an eyelash, over the possibility that he would spill her secrets. So we were off to a rocky start, Isoka and I.
The second issue I had was with Isoka being bisexual. No no, before you get your knickers in a twist, hear me out: It wasn't the fact that she was bisexual at ALL. I'm a fan of diverse books. I like F/F romance pretty much the same as I do regular romance - which is to say, not much at all unless it's done right. I'm just not a romance person, period. BUT the reason this one pissed me off is that the diversity was forced. Isoka was into men, not women, not even to the point of being bi-curious, AND she even was even judgy about Jack and Thora - who are both females - being openly romantic. That's the part that really pissed me off, is that she looked down on Jack and Thora for being together (and looked away because it made her uncomfortable), but then a few chapters later she was suddenly lusting after Meroe like she had been into women the whole time. (To the point that the plot disappeared and it became nothing but Isoka pining over Meroe while simultaneously pretending not to care.) It was just a little too convenient for me, and because of that, the romance made me ill. If she had been into women even remotely from the start, or even open-minded about being with a woman, it wouldn't have mattered to me in the least. It made it feel like a teenage boy's wet dream fanfic (the author is male and it shows, sorry) or like the author was deliberately inserting diversity for the sake of being diverse. I hope this issue gets fixed before final publication.
I found the romance to be gag-worthy, not only for the reasons mentioned above but also because Isoka was thinking about Meroe's hair, or the sway of her hips, while fighting for her life (um, priorities?!), and it became too much of a focus for me when more important things were happening that should have been a focus. At least Isoka was a bit more human for caring about Meroe, and it proved that she actually had a heart and wasn't just a cold/ruthless/unfeeling killer, which is what she seemed in the beginning - sorry but that's not badass, that's just bad. A strong lead can go a little too far, they still need to have some weakness/humanity for crying out loud.
Other than despising the main character, I didn't really care about any of the other characters. None of them were particularly inspiring or deep, and I couldn't conjure a single fuck about any of them or what happened to them.
New drinking game: For every time someone curses by saying rot, take a drink. Guarantee you'll be trashed by halfway through the book. (This would also work for the word rut, which I will get to in a minute. That deserves its own paragraph.) I like when authors come up with their own curse words for their fantasy world - love it, actually - but this one was a bit much for me. Could we not have come up with one or two more words besides rot?! It was vastly overused to the point of irritation. By the end of the book I was rolling my eyes every time the main character said "rot, rot, rot" because it was basically every other page. Okay we get it, things are bad enough to curse. Maybe get a bit more creative.
Which brings me to the other word that bugged the ever loving shit out of me: rut, used in place of "have sex." JUST SAY FUCK, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. I wanted to gag every time Isoka talked about 'rutting' with another character, and I just couldn't take it seriously. This book can barely be labeled YA to begin with, so dropping the F bomb wouldn't matter much; and I'm sorry, but it would sound much better than "Would you like to go in the other room and rut?"
Keep your panties on, ladies. (And yes, that is an honest to God quote from the ARC. Let's hope that doesn't make it to publication, either.)
Despite all those negatives, this book had great potential. The world and concept are super unique and intriguing - the story is set on a ghost ship!!! - and I probably would have loved it with better characters and less irritation. I loved the concept of the Wells of Sorcery and the way the magic was used, it was awesome! The setting was wicked cool, delightfully dark and gritty with a Ghost Ship feel going on. There was a lot of action, too (which was pretty cinematic, despite the crab creatures being extremely hard to picture), so despite my heavy dose of apathy for the story and the characters, it went fairly quickly thankfully.
If my complaints from the first few paragraphs don't phase you and you're into high fantasy, you'd probably like this book. It had a bit of a Sanderson feel to it and the dark gritty feel reminded me a tad (a teeny, tiny, infinitesimal tad, mind you) of Kristoff. It just fell flat for me and my irritation outweighed everything else. Womp womp.
This review was originally posted on Novel Heartbeat. To see a breakdown of my assessment, please visit the full review here.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
This was the first book written by Django Wexler that I've read, and after doing a little research on the author I've come to find that he has written so many different books from middle grade to adult fiction. Knowing this, I have so much more respect for the author going into this book. YA has been one of my favorite genres to read for so long because I tend to find that they are less dry and filled with the aspects that I've come to love in the books I read. I love the coming of age tales, the sweet first loves, the journey to find ones place in this world. Even though I am definitely supposed to be all grown up in my ripe old age of 31, I do find that I can still relate to the characters as they navigate their way through their conflicts and I have no shame in loving my YA book obsession. That being said, Wexler did an amazing job with transitioning to a YA novel. There were some heavy topics like sex and rape but they were done with care to not be offensive by any means. I also found that this book touched on so many of the key elements that the book community is actively wanting represented in the books they read. There was LGBTQ representation, PoC representation, and Femenism representation. While this seems like a lot of big topics to cover all within one book, it was actually done quite well and none of it seemed forced or out of place. Ship of Smoke and Steel is a well rounded book while at the same time being a unique and different book all in one.
Set in a fantasy world, this book follows a girl named Isoka who is the ward boss who cares only for herself and her sister. Isoka does all the bloody, gory work so that her sister can keep her innocence and live a comfortable and easy life. But keeping criminals in line comes easy for Isoka through her Melos magic, for Melos is the Well of Combat. In this world there are nine Wells of Sorcery that give the person who has the well power over things like fire, perception, speed, and even the mind. There is also the forbidden well of Life, and the lost well of Spirits. Some people are blessed with the powers of a well, others not. And then there are some that possess the ability to manipulate multiple wells. Isoka has the rare magic of the well of Melos and she uses it to her advantage to keep that which she cares about most safe from those who would cause them harm or sell them into prostitution. But when her magic is discovered, Isoka is taken to the Emperor's spymaster and is given a mission to steal a mythical ship and bring it back to Kahnzoka or her sister will be killed. Its not until she is aboard this strange ship that Isoka begins to realize that nothing is as simple as it seems. Who is the captian? How does this weird vessel work? How can she steal something that she knows absolutely nothing about?
Isoka is one kickass character. With her Combat magic, she can take care of herself in most every situation and when she is thrown into a bloodthirsty society of rejects, she soon learns that she will have to fight her way to the top if she ever wants to save her sister. I like that even though she starts off seeming like a cold heartless you know what, throughout the book we start to see that she does have a heart wayyyy down in her somewhere and she will do anything for those she loves. This kind of strong female lead was empowering and I instantly was rooting for Isoka to succeed. She is easy to hate, but that also makes her easy to like because she doesn't sugar coat anything or tiptoe around sensitive subjects. She says it like it is, love her or hate her, she won't be put off either way. She also comes to find out so much about herself when putting it all on the line, I felt like I could feel the emotions warming within her as her cold heart thawed.
There is a little bit of romance in the book but it is more of a side line to the crazy action packed story. I really enjoyed reading about Isoka and how as she hacks and chops her way to the top of the pack, also she learns that she might not want to get there alone anymore. She comes to care about her little pack of odd characters, and with them she feels like there is a reason to her inner war of emotions. Not to mention a little crush she can't ignore. The love is sweet and light, and only adds to her character. But even with these feelings surfacing it still doesn't overshadow the plot to the story. There is so much action and fighting that those slow love scenes are almost like a little breather before chaos ensues again. The pacing of the book kept me flying through it though. There definitely isn't any of the book that lags. I felt like I needed to take a nap afterwards, because you know, defeating all those giant crabs, and attempting to take over a ghost ship was pretty exhausting!!
I really enjoyed this book, I think that I might have to check out some of Wexler's other books and see what I think of his other genres. The writing was fantastic, the characters so well fleshed out, the setting was the most unique book I've read in a long time, and the story was action filled and so much fun. I can't wait for the next book in the series. Its fun finding a new author that you enjoy, its like a whole new world to explore, and I think that if its anything like this book then I'll be in for a treat.
[3.5/5 stars] I love it when high fantasy authors transition to YA. Their stories are always much more robust than other books in the genre because they’re used to creating expansive worlds, complex characters, and detailed plots for their audience.
Wexler didn’t dumb things down, but he did pull a few punches to make the story more accessible… but not by much. There’s some grit here (older teen appropriate), and I appreciated how ruthless the main character was right out of the gate. She surprised me a few times, and that’s difficult to do these days.
The concept sold me right away. A “ghost” ship riddled with monsters that’s more or less a lifelong prison to anyone who boards it. It provided an eerie atmosphere, and was definitely memorable. I’ve read so many high-seas fantasy novels… it’s nice to find one with a unique twist. The swordplay was also a highlight – you can tell Wexler enjoys writing fight scenes because he does them well.
My least favorite aspect of the story was the sentimentality, oddly. Although it showed some meaningful character growth, the main character got a little too soft for my tastes, especially since there are more books to come in this series. That said, at least it was a gradual cracking of her hard demeanor. I also thought the magic system was vastly underplayed to the point where I don’t think I could even describe how it works.
This is my first Django Wexler, and it definitely won’t be my last. I’m interested in the sequel to this book, but I’m more excited about starting his Shadow Campaigns fantasy series, now that I know I like his writing style.
Recommendations: this is a gritty breath of fresh air for the YA fantasy market. I’d hand it to older teens and adults, especially ones who don’t want romance as the main focus (although it does contain some). Y’all will have to let me know how it compares to Wexler’s high fantasy works!
I’m a huge fan of Django Wexler, but even I must concede that those saying Ship of Smoke and Steel isn’t as strong as his other work might have a point. That said, I think it’s also important to keep in mind this was published under the Tor Teen label, and despite some of its more mature themes and bloodier, more brutal moments, there’s absolutely no denying it is both written and intended for YA audiences. In some ways, this did make the story a little more predictable, not to mention it was filled with tropes to the extreme, but as long as you know what to expect, it’s still an enjoyable read.
The book follows Isoka, eighteen years old and already has made a name for herself as a minor boss of the Kahnzoka underworld, where she runs a small gang. However, what no one knows is that she uses all her money to raise her little sister, for whom she had set up a safe and sheltered life away from the ugliness of violence and poverty. But that is not the only secret Isoka is hiding, for she is also mageborn, an individual endowed with a special ability to access the Wells of Sorcery, the font of magical power.
Unfortunately, none of these are things Isoka could keep under wraps for long. When her magic is discovered, our protagonist is taken into custody where she is visited by the emperor’s right hand and offered an impossible task that she must accept because somehow, they know all about her sister. Left with no choice, Isoka is press-ganged into the service of the Soliton, a legendary ghost ship said to be haunted with monsters and crewed by hardened criminals and exiles. Surrounded by her fellow cutthroat magic-users and cruel taskmasters, Isoka has to figure out a way to seize control and complete her mission, which is to steal the Soliton and bring it and its power back to the empire to harness within a year, or else her sister’s life would be forfeit.
As you can see, even in this short description, the YA tropes are plentiful. Isoka belongs to a character type I’m sure we’ve all seen before: the strong, resourceful, rough and tough female protagonist, who is one hundred percent badass. Bonus, she’s also got a special power, that no one knows about, of course, of course. On top of being an able fighter who kills with no remorse, there’s also not much that fazes her. However, she does have a soft side, and no surprise at all, it comes in the form of a younger sibling. And predictably, it doesn’t take long for the little sister to be assigned the role of bargaining chip, as well as a means to drum up sympathy for the main character.
As the story moves forward, things also settle into a “survivor” type plotline, and there’s heavy emphasis on romance. Not saying these things are a negative, but for a book by Wexler, whose expansive world-building and character development I enjoyed immensely in both his adult series The Shadow Campaigns and his middle grade series The Forbidden Library…well, this one felt like he was playing it a bit “safe” in comparison. That said, Ship of Smoke and Steel has an edge—in more than one sense of the word. It doesn’t shy from the harsh realities of a world where only the strongest and those who aren’t afraid to take what they want can have a real chance at survival. The competition is harsh and won’t hesitate to do you harm in order to succeed, and in the face of this, it is also important for Isoka not to hold back either. It’s completely brutal and no-holds-barred, which I think YA readers thirsting for a darker flair may be able to appreciate.
Also, I enjoyed the candid exploration of the characters’ relationships and portrayal of sexuality. While I felt too much focus was placed on the romance, a point that distracted from the main plot, I liked that Meroe, the love interest who is a princess and a powerful female character in her own right, was a nice complement to Isoka and tended to bring out the softer, more sentimental side to her.
Overall, I think readers coming from Django Wexler’s previous work will find Ship of Smoke and Steel to be quite enjoyable, as I did, even though many of its elements might feel familiar or predictable. But so long as you’re prepared for some of what I call the usual YA shenanigans, it’s a pretty fun and thrilling ride. I love that the content level is also geared more towards the older end of the teen spectrum and above, so those looking for a little more grit and visceral action in their YA will revel in the fact this pulls no punches. I’m glad I got to fit this in before the end of the year to be right in time for the sequel, which I’m looking forward to reading!
This book is terrible. Do not waste your time with it, regardless of what you've heard. Madi from The Book Pusher goes into good detail regarding this pile of flaming garbage in some of her YouTube videos, and I would honestly recommend you give her videos a look, she's a gem, but I'll try to go over what I can, here.
I feel like this book was marketed as "this assassin girl is assigned a task of stowaway on a ghost ship of sorts and she has a year to take over the ship in order to bring it back to her home port to bargain for her younger sister's life, and on the way she meets another girl who causes her a bisexual awakening." That's not what this book is, not even in the slightest.
Time to spill some tea.
So our protagonist is Isoka, who is essentially a gang boss in the slums of a city called Kahnzoka in the Blessed Empire. [The amount of times the word "Blessed" is used in this book alongside the words "rot" and "balls" has led me to believe that when people say "the Blessed Empire", they're actually cursing, much in the same way my dad curses in a rage when he yells "God bLESS America!"] I'm not going to get into details about the Wells of Sorcery and the powers they bestow upon the people who are born with some innate connection to them, partially because the actual function of the Wells of Sorcery and their purpose is shunted into a box where all it does is give random characters "cool powers" and doesn't actually add anything to the story beyond that because there was no real development for this aspect of the shoddy world-building, and partially because it's not just confusing as hell, it's boring as hell too. All you need to know is that essentially Isoka has the power to generate some sort of green light constructs that allow her to form weapons and armor a la Green Lantern, and she's spent years using this to intimidate and kill people while running around as a gang leader working for the organized crime in Kahnzoka. She does this of course, because of her little sister, whom she's trying to shelter.
If you're about to assume she does this out of the goodness of her heart and the love of her sister, I'm here to burst your bubble, because even before I watched Madi's videos, it was frighteningly clear that Isoka has a creepy, smothering obsession with her sister Tori, that is borderline incestuous and very reminiscent of a serial killer sort of antagonist from crime thriller novels, as Isoka is hellbent on making sure that Tori stays "pure" and "free of the taint and the dirt of the world" and that she remain ignorant of Isoka's actions because "nothing matters except keeping Tori safe and pure because she's the only good thing in the world that gives my wretched, cursed existence meaning."
If you're not already squicking, it's going to get worse, I can promise you that! Isoka gets captured (after killing her partner-slash-occasional-lover Hagan in order to silence him so he couldn't be tortured for information,) and issued the ultimatum that she's going to be offered as a "sacrifice" to the mysterious and near-mythical "ghost" ship Soliton, and that she has a year to take control of the ship and bring it back to Kahnzoka as ransom for Tori's life. What great motivation!
Once aboard the ship, Isoka learns that pretty much everyone there can touch one of the Wells of Sorcery, there's some kind of hierarchy that she's sure she can figure out in no time because she was a gang boss so clearly she knows how this works...aaaannnd you don't actually care about that because guess what, we meet the Love Interest, Meroe, who is supposed to be Isoka's Closet Key to her bisexual awakening. The thing of the matter however, is that despite the almost instant attraction that has Isoka lusting after Meroe, Isoka is a racist, classist, bitch on another level, who spends just as much time slut-shaming everyone else on the ship and internally crowing her disgust at anyone who isn't openly heterosexual that this sort of renders her confusion and lust over Meroe pointless. This isn't a book that celebrates discovering and embracing one's bisexuality; it's rampant with homophobia and slut-shaming and reads, as Madi said, like some fanboy's wet dream about lesbians.
Ah, but it doesn't just end there, because Isoka's agonizing over her sudden desire to get in another woman's pants takes over pretty much the entire narrative and sidelines the actual plot. Throw in constant fighting and battle scenes that drag on long enough to leave me yawning and my eyes wandering, and you just have a formula for a piece of garbage that wasted my time. [Also, I'll be happy if I never see the word "rut" again in my life. It's like the characters were legally not allowed to say anything else, by which I mean "rut" was practically the only word ever used to refer to the act of sex.]
So disappointed that not only did the LitJoy team spend all that extra time and money getting cool artwork for the inside of the dust jacket when this tire fire doesn't deserve something that pretty, but also just incredibly disappointed that I wasted my time with it. I want my sanity back, with a complimentary bag of Bugles with which to munch away the pain.
Ship of Smoke and Steel was my first foray into Django Wexler's writing. I have his adult series on my tbr, but haven't had the time to fit them in, but this one I had to read this year. When I first read the blurb about it I thought it sounded amazing, and I have to say it was. But did I love it? I'm not sure. The jury is still in session on it, so for the now this crazy read gets a 3.75-4 stars from me. More on the reasons later on.
To begin with, Wexler's writing is friggin' fantastic!!THIS is the kind of high quality stuff you just don't see much in YA fiction. It's usually reserved for adult books only, which infuriates me because YA can DO with a lot more of this type of writing. The depth of the world he creates (almost the entirety of the story takes place inside a creepy ass ship), which you'd think would be boring but it's actually really not. The cultures and ethnicities seem to greatly reflect our own in many ways, but he's still made them his own as well. Also the plot is wholly original, as far as my reading experience can attest to, and I absolutely loved it!!
The premise of this ship is that it takes a bounty of humans, sacrificed to the ship from every port it stops in. It's the ship of legend, a ghost ship that no one really believes in until they see it in their harbor. It's ginormous, swathed in mist, and far more advanced then any kingdoms current vessels. Every country wants to control it, but no one succeeds. It's under that kind of pressure that our heroine, Isoka, is blackmailed into going aboard as tribute, the endgame being to bring the ship under the control of the Emperor.
Now you think it's just a creepy ass, rust-bucket, but it's sooooo much more than that. Inside this ship are creatures of strange origin, ones you expect to live in the sea rather than inside a ship, if you're just going by their names alone: Hammerheads, crabs, scuttlers, dredworms, and this other critter that's a glorified puffer fish of a sort. But their names are deceptively underestimating, and things turn out very interestingly. Oh! And we also have angels. Say what? Yes. Angels. But not the heavenly sort. Or even the Doctor Who variety. I'd actually sooner take my chances with the weeping ones....
In addition to the weird, unexpected creatures hiding in the bowels of the ship, which did I mention is ginormous? Like cities would fit inside. We have "gardens", "shipwrecks" and other strange environments that inexplicably exist inside a bloody flaming ship! It doesn't make sense! And it's so fascinating and intriguing and I just really, really loved it.
The originality of it all keeps coming back to mind even though it's been a few days since I finished it, and I'm involved in another book. I keep comparing my current book to this one in terms of quality. Have I mentioned the quality writing of this book???? I need so many more like it, plz & ty! Obviously I've added the sequel to my tbr and can't wait for it to release next January! My current book is just completely lacking in comparison *cries* It's probably going to get a lower rating that it would have if I hadn't picked it up after this fantabulous bit of art. Poor thing. Oh well.
Oh! The magic system!! I seriously loved the magic system. There's these different wells of magic, each named, and each specific in the magical abilities they give. People can draw magic from more than one well, but most just draw from one. And there's varying levels of magical abilities as well: "touched" having minor abilities, "talents" have stronger skills, and "adepts" who are strong in magic. I haven't read anything quite like that in any other books. It's definitely one of my more favorite magic systems, though I've read about a few that try to be unique. Some are just weird. But this one is definitely cool *thumbs up*
Now as I've stated this is one creepy as ship, that it just put me in mind of the Flying Dutchman from Pirates of the Caribbean, only on acid. I even half expected the crew to look similar lol. It was such a trippy ride through all the levels, environments, creatures, and hierarchy of this ship, Solition.
Speaking of the hierarchy, the captain. The captain of this ship is aloof, almost like a ghost. Only the officers have seen him, or so they'd have you believe. Isoka is extremely determined to meet the captain herself and try to bend him to her will so she can take control of the ship so she can save her sister. But it's not as easy as all that. The mystery behind the elusive captain was fascinating, as well as the mystery that surrounds the ship's origin.
There was a slew of characters of all varieties, backgrounds, sexualities, etc. This story showcases them all, and in a positive light. The romance is a slow-burn f/f, thank the Blessed. Another sign of Wexler's excellent writing skill, not relying on the worn out, threadbare YA tropes. So all praises to him! I loved Meroe and her steady confidence, Clever Jack was hilarious and I loved her. Her partner Thora was also a kind force of nature and magical skill. Their fellow pack member Aifin, a.k.a. the Moron, was also likable in his own quiet way. I'm hoping he grows into a more frequent role in the next book now that Meroe has figured him out. Of course who doesn't like cocky Zarun as well? There's such diversity amongst the crew and they're all fascinating and all have interesting roles to play.
Now to the reason for why I would rate this lower than a solid 4 star, a.k.a. why I didn't love this book 100%. The entire time I was reading this book I just couldn't stop wondering why I didn't feel absolute love for this book. Obviously by all my ravings above you'd think I did, wouldn't you? But I didn't. And I finally was able to put my finger on it. It all boiled down to Isoka herself, our heroine, the girl the book is all about. I didn't connect with her. I thought she was a total badass, she was strong, confident, determined and highly skilled. What's not to love about her? Well, she felt more like a robot in personality. An AI with no emotions or human connections, whatever. I know her reasons for being that way, the life she's had to live just so her sister could have better, and it's obviously broken something in her. And because of that I just never felt fully invested in her as a person, I rooted for her of course, but I couldn't emotionally connect with her, and it just makes it so the book is like holding you out at arms length, not allowing you to fully love it like it really should be loved, ya know what I mean? I was incredibly frustrated by this, because I absolutely adored everything else about the story. Just not Isoka herself. *Sigh*
For everything else it's worth putting it at 4 stars, but I really need Isoka to become more human in the next book! I'm definitely looking forward to the book itself, and am hoping for more character growth and, of course, more epic story!! I'm definitely more psyched to read Wexler's other books now that I've seen what he can do!
Django Wexler did his homework and filled Ship of Steel and Smoke with stuff that sells. To the brim. Badass heroine, romance, diversity, whooshing magical blades, LGBT themes and much more.
Isoka is a ruthless money collector living in the port city of Kahnzoka. She hurts people for money and shows no remorse to kill her coworkers, but it all serves to keep her sister from harm. So, I guess, it makes her ok? Equipped with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat, that allows her to summon blades of pure energy she‘s unstoppable. Until she meets EMpire’s magical enforcers. Those guys are even more badass and they know she cares for her sister.
Unless Isoka infiltrates and takes control of Soliton (mythical ghost ship) bad things will happen. Once on board she has to build her position by killing monsters, fighting a bully, killing more monsters. Along the road she’ll discover truths about herself and her sexuality and dark secrets of Soliton.
Ship of Steel and Smoke uses tropes, and it doesn’t hide it. Isoka is violent and calculating. Life on the streets taught her that people use people, so she does the same. And yet, her change of heart comes way too fast and remains unconvincing. I mean, without spoiling too much, in a matter of weeks and after slaughtering few hostile monsters, she becomes almost a messiah figure. And she falls in love. And she discovers things that should remain hidden. And…
What can I tell you? It’s a good product, but it lacks heart and true depth. Wexler recycles ideas but does it with creativity and with flair. The world and obstacles Isoka meets are impressive and fun. Visceral action scenes entertain. Romance should appeal to the book‘s target audience. That said, I found the plot painfully simplistic and characters two-dimensional.
I can see myself loving this book twenty years ago. I can totally see younger readers dig it now. As far as YA books go, this one was ok, but nothing more.
I enjoyed the set up of this world a lot. A ghostly ship that requires sacrifices everywhere it goes? The sacrifices must be magically gifted and are never seen again? Sign me up! It kind of makes me think of the Theseus and the Minotaur myth. But instead of a labyrinth, its a impossible-to-navigate ship. Magic people have access to what is called wells and have varying levels of access and, subsequently, varying levels of power. All fantastic. I really liked the different cultures and the way the society on the ship is set up as well.
My main issue with this book is that Isoka, the main character, changes so drastically and so quickly when she meets her love interest. The first chapter is a struggle, I found, because it goes into Isoka's stats and dumps information about her instead of showing you that information. We are shown that she is brutal and won't hesitate to kill people if it will protect her and her sister which I liked. BUT once she meets a girl she likes, she changes so much when she's in an even more dangerous situation. I found it hard to believe she would transition into a stereotypical, self-sacrificing hero this quickly or at all. The plot is pretty predictable, but enjoyable. I read it pretty quickly which is always nice. I just wish her growth was slower and matched the tone of the world and story.
3.5/5 stars, very interesting magic system and ideas.
The main thing that made me pick this book up was the promotion tagline, "for fans of Legend of Korra" because that's my comfort show so how could I not read it?? Unfortunately, I didn't really see the similarities between the two, the only thing is that our main character is aggressive and angsty much like Korra was aggressive in the first season. I just didn't see the similarities at all, and that doesn't make it a bad book this just annoyed me a little bit.
Also before I read this, I went into this expecting a sweeping ya novel but in reality, it read more like an adult novel. Not in the sense of there are inappropriate things in here, but there were so many info dumps and it crept along at a slower pace than most ya fantasy books. I think if I had gone in knowing it was going to be slower, much like adult fantasy, I would've enjoyed the pacing a lot more. I have to admit there was a LOT of action, but sometimes I just felt like the story was standing still.
As the story went on, there were some plot twists that I was not expecting. It's always fun when a book surprises you, I just felt like a lot of that was too little, too late. I still enjoyed the book of course but the middle dragged, and then we were hit with a bunch of plot twists towards the last 1/3 of the book. It was still interesting plot twists so I will continue the series, as I want to see what else the author can do. There wasn't a cliffhanger either, so I don't feel in a rush to read the next book, so I'm debating when I want to read it, if soon.
Isoka our main character is very ruthless, like running along the edge of morally gray and villain at the beginning (in my opinion). If you don't enjoy lots of gore, and morally gray characters then do not read this book. This book is filled with those types of people, who are just fighting to stay alive and have to do terrible things, much like Isoka. Once I got used to her perspective and how she saw the world it really wasn't that bad, but she's still not my favorite. I appreciate her for the growth she goes through in this book, and the willingness to fight for herself, yet I didn't feel incredibly attached to her.
Meroe I would argue is the second most important character, and she too was quite bland. She felt like a trope with a few added details, and while there is nothing wrong with that, I'm not sure I liked how she fitted into the story. She is a very caring and compassionate person, I praise her for that, but she mostly just didn't do anything until towards the end. She is a good contrast to our main character Isoka though, as they have different moral compasses. How I feel about her is how I feel about most of the characters in this book, meh, they aren't that memorable but they serve their purpose.
My favorite was Zarun, even if he was a side character for most of the book. He was very sarcastic and witty, but not afraid to be ruthless and strong when he needed to be. He was also basically a pirate and I loved him for it. He still doesn't have as much development or screen time as I would like, as all of the characters felt a bit flat in this book. But I am hoping we see more of him later on.
The setting being on Soliton was honestly really confusing at first, including later on. I couldn't picture a whole lot of the ship aside from, METAL, that's the big thing I took away from the descriptions. The concepts and aesthetic of it were amazing though and I just wish we had some better descriptions to match how cool it feels. There are still some mysteries relating to the ship that we do not know yet and that intrigues me more than anything else.
Overall, not a bad book just felt more adult than ya fantasy. I think there are some great starting points for the series in this book, it just felt slow at times and I didn't fully connect with any of the characters. Hoping for an improvement in the next book, but if you want a really unique read I would try this out!
Executive Summary: A bit of a slow start, but overall really good. Nearly as good as his Shadow Campaign series. 4.5 Stars.
Audiobook: I believe this is the first book I've listened to by Catherine Ho. She does a good job. She does a few voices that add that little something extra that I've come to expect from a good audio book these days. Definitely worth doing in audio..
Full Review If you haven't read Mr. Wexler's Shadow Campaign series, you should stop reading this right now and read that instead. Go ahead, I'll wait. Trust me, it will be worth it.
Wow, you're a fast reader! See. I told you it would be worth it!
So anyways, I really love that series and I've been recommending it for years. When this series was announced I was a bit disappointed. It seems like the market appeal for "young adult" was too much to avoid. I worried this book would have all the trappings that leaves most YA books pretty unappealing to me.
Then again I liked his Shadow Campaign series so much that I picked up his Middle Grade series The Forbidden Library and ended up liking that quite a bit too, even though I'm not the target audience.
Early on I was struggling a bit with the book. I found Isoka to be unlikeable. This was by intent, but she felt like another cookie-cutter anti-hero. However my initial impressions were misplaced and do a disservice to Mr. Wexler's character development. Mr. Wexler has written Isoka to be complex. There are times when I like her, and times when I don't, but I came to understand her more as the book went on.
This was not the case with Meroe however. I loved her pretty much from the first time we meet her, and for me she's the real star of the show. Yeah Isoka is a badass Jedi-like fighter, but Meroe is a delight.
The world building for this book is also excellent. I love me a good magic system and this one intrigues me. I don't envy the job of fantasy writers trying to come up with something that doesn't seem too derivative and is still appealing to readers at the same time. I have a lot of questions about the nature of magic in this world, especially after some of the developments near the end of the book.
I will say this book is still YA for a reason, and I might have liked it a touch better if it weren't, but it probably starts out even stronger than The Thousand Names did, at least once the main plot gets going.
I'm eagerly looking forward to the next book and Mr. Wexler continues to be one of the best fantasy writers I enjoy that seems to still be under the radar to many mainstream fantasy readers.
Maybe this book will have the broader appeal that is lacking in The Thousand Names due to the heavy military action. I'll be curious to see if he can match the level of political intrigue of his Shadow Campaign books that turned that series from one I enjoyed to one I loved. Time will tell.
Django Wexler's debut into the YA genre is a thrilling and engaging roller coaster ride. Let me say first that thought this is a YA novel it does deal with topics of rape and sexual activities but nothing to extreme.
I personally have really nothing bad to say about this first entry in the Wells of Sorcery trilogy. It was everything I expect from Django Wexler. It has a very unique magic system called Wells. What I loved about this magic system was that it didn't focus on elements, not that there is anything wrong with that but it's what we have come to expect. Some of the Wells included Combat, Force, Perception, Shadows, etc. You also aren't limited to just one Well access but it's very rare to have access to two. There is a lot more detail to this magic system and it's something I want readers to read and digest it for themselves.
The story is action, action, action. There was never ever a dull moment in this high octane story. This is a Ghost Ship Heist full of mystery and intrigue. I am so into a well plotted Heist and that was this.
Django Wexler created and crafted a colorful cast of characters. Isoka is a powerful and confident protagonist and I was rooting for her every flip of the page. Isoka just joined my ranks of favorites. We also have some wonderful side charcters. Meroe, Jack, and Thora are wonderful. They are quite a few others. We also have LGBTQ representation throughout this book from F/F to M/M.
This is all I have to say about this first entry into the Wells of Sorcery Trilogy. Congratulations Django Wexler on your debut into the YA genre. The only other thing I could say is how much I am going to hate the wait for book two!!!!!
I received this novel in a book box subscription (pirate themed), and I was so excited to read it once I read the summary. There was a lot that intrigued me about a giant, ghost ship sailing the world and abducting young people imbued with magic. So, summary. We we’re off to a great start.
And then I started reading...
Where to even begin? First of all, though this novel is considered YA, its content is closer to that a poorly constructed romance novel and the word choice reads closer to a middle grade novel. Which is, of course... pretty bad. Don’t get me wrong, middle grade books can be great (I still reread PJO every year), but the sexual content paired with poor language choice made it nearly impossible to read without cringing.
And speaking of language choice - the slang. Personally, iI’m a fan of a book that invents some of it’s own words, especially in a fantastyverse with it’s own countries and cultures. The Maze Runner books use “shuck” and “shank” and “klunk” and all sort of words to replace cursing and make the book more accessible to younger readers without taking away emphasis. Great. Loved it. But SoSaS has a grand two items of slang. Rot and rut.
Let’s start with “rot”. It’s used to replace words like “shit” and “fuck”, which would honestly be fine if it weren’t for the fact that it’s used at least five times on every page. I read another review on this book that mentioned how by the end she was rolling her eyes whenever the word was used, and that’s a fat damn mood to be e quite rank. Just fucking swear if you need it so badly.
And “rut”. Used to replace any mention of sex. It’s genuinely uncomfortable to read. For a book with a wlw relationship as the main pairing, it reads like a man is talking. Which, I suppose, is true giving that the author is, in fact, a man. It was cringey at best.
Second, our main character sucked. I found her to be entirely unrelatable, unreliable, and generally lacking any emotion to make the reader connect with her. Honestly, she reminded me a lot of Celaena in the first Throne of Glass book, except she didn’t have any humor or other halfway decent qualities to redeem her as the novel went on. I came to enjoy Celaena throughout ToG, but Isoka irritated me beyond reconciliation.
More on that, none of the characters had anything that really made them likable. There was so much POC, LGBT, and disability representation that could have been completely amazing, that went terribly because the characters didn’t have any depth. There’s a lot I could into on the issue but can’t without fuming out the ears.
Overall, I found the novel to be a complete disaster (which anyone who knows how I rate books can tell by this two star review), but it had the potential to be a lot more. Someone less critical might not mind, and actually find this to be an enjoyable read. I’m just not one of them.
2.5 stars actually!!! I really liked the story! It was intriguing and the characters were very interesting! It read like a very cool video game and the diversity was plenty! What bothered me though were the endless grammar mistakes like "did decided", change in tense (it was mainly in the present tense and at some parts the author forgot (?) and switched to the past tense) or editing mistakes (the name 'Shiara' became 'Shira' on the same page). I feel like someone should have done a better job (author? editor?) but unfortunately that won't allow me to rate it more than 2.5 stars.
Like most readers I have a love/hate relationship with tropes. On one hand when you are in a reading slump there is nothing better to get you out of it than a book full of tropes. On the other hand too many tropes is probably what put you in the slump to begin with. Ship of Smoke and Steel is easily one of the most tropish books I've ever read from the title to the main character to the bad guy; it's just one giant trope and I absolutely loved every second of it!
Wexler takes every trope imaginable and sticks it into a wholly unique world that's one part fantasy, one part sci-fi with just a dash of ghost story thrown into it. So while the book is chock full of tropes because of this unique mash-up of genres all of those tropes feel new and inspired while also feeling a bit like being wrapped up in a familiar blanket.
Tropes aside though what really made this an excellent read was just how unique this world was. I genuinely don't believe I've ever read anything quite like this, at first it really seems like this world and the Soliton especially are going to follow the same tropish formula everything else in the book does, but it doesn't, at all, and any time I though I had a handle on just *what* the Soliton was some new piece of information set fire to all of my carefully crafted theories. I still have no idea what to think about this crazy, impossible ship and I have a strong feeling I'm going to have to finish the series before I get an answer. Which really won't be a hardship.
The characters in this were really wonderful as well. I absolutely fell in love with Meroe! She's such a quirky little spot of sunshine in what is really a depressing little world that I'd say it would be almost impossible to not love her. And while Isoka is a cookie cutter YA protagonist I still enjoyed her.
Finally, I really enjoyed the magic system in this as well. I think it could have been really easy for this system to make the characters just completely overpowered but Wexler writes this in such a way that the magic simply augments those that can access the Wells, it doesn't make them invincible. This allows for the action scenes to rely more on the quick thinking of our heroes and not simply their magic.
Overall, I found Ship of Smoke and Steel to be simply a fun read with well choreographed action scenes, an interesting magic system, a mind boggling mystery involving a possibly sentient boat (or maybe its actually a ghost ship, who knows?), and a wonderful cast of characters!
I keep thinking of this book as “queer Hunger Games.” I don’t know precisely why — maybe because it has some of the same tone and tropes as the Hunger Games but actually has queer people?
Anyway, here’s the official synopsis:
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.
I really enjoyed Ship of Smoke and Steel, which was unsurprising since I love Django Wexler’s adult work. Some things I liked about Ship of Smoke and Steel:
1. It’s queer!!! Specifically, Isoka is bisexual and has a female love interest. I could see people thinking that Isoka fell in love with her too fast, but I can see how it happened. Meroe’s everything that Isoka admires and almost wishes she could be (kindness as a strength). It’s not just a matter of her loving Meroe, but loving who she is when she’s with Meroe.
2. Isoka is one hell of an antiheroine. She’s almost like a teenage Nyx (AKA the badass mercenary from Kameron Hurley’s God’s War). And Nyx is my all-time favorite antiheroine, so that’s a huge compliment.
3. The Soliton is an intriguing piece of world-building. The fantasy world is clearly low tech, and yet there’s this ship so vast that it has its own ecosystem? My two theories were long dead civilization or something magic. No spoilers, but the world-building and plot twists nicely intertwine. If you like Brandon Sanderson’s world-building but want queer people, read this book.
Other stuff I want to note:
1. It’s on the more adult side of young adult. I know there’s this whole conversation happening right now about “Are teens really being represented by YA literature?” I feel like Ship of Smoke and Steel could just as easily been marketed towards adults given the violence, sexual content, and generally darker elements. But in that way, it’s similar to a lot of popular YA books out right now. I think the book was actually being sold as “Leigh Bardugo meets Legend of Korra” and that feels on point (also because both Korra and this book are delightfully bi).
2. Isoka’s cultural background felt vaguely East Asian coded/inspired. It’s not clearly Asian in a way that I would classify as representation, and I thought it was distant enough that it didn’t feel too exploitative/appropriative. But I’m a white person and not the best person to speak on this. I’d be interested to see reviews from Asian readers.
3. On the topic of me being a white woman, I’ve seen the edges of a conversation on Twitter about queer YA books with a white protagonist and POC love interest and some racial problems with this trend. I don’t know enough to say much more, but if Isoka’s white (see point #2 and the vagaries of her actual race) then it could possibly fit into this category.
4. I’m not a huge fan of younger siblings as plot devices. I don’t think it’s problematic or anything, it just feels tired. I see it in so many books, YA especially and it often seems like a cheap, rather uncreative way to motivate your protagonists. Hunger Games is where I first saw it, but I’ve seen it crop up a lot since then. In most cases, the younger sibling could be replaced with a teddy bear and the story wouldn’t change.
5. Tying back to my last point, Ship of Smoke and Steel does use some YA story tropes. But I think it works all right? It just goes to show, tropes are tools and stories that use them well are good, fun stories.
This isn’t really about Ship of Smoke and Steel persay, but… at the moment I’m writing this, one of the most popular reviews on Goodreads for this book, one of the ones that shows up first, is uncomfortable biphobic and homophobic. Straight readers, the book’s not tricking you by having Isoka “suddenly be a lesbian,” because she’s not a lesbian. She’s bisexual. And yes, she doesn’t realize she likes girls at the beginning, but THAT IS NOT UNREALISTIC. Isoka is 18 in this book. I actually got my first crush on a girl when I was 18 and didn’t come out until 19. So the straight reviewers saying this stuff… can you not?
Basically, you should especially read this book if any of these apply to you:
- You love books about monstrous women. - You like Brandon Sanderson’s worlds and plotting but want queer characters. - You want a YA book with a darker, more adult edge — think Six of Crows. - You want a f/f YA fantasy book that’s not a bury your gays or a queer tragedy. The series isn’t finished, so I guess I can’t guarantee, but the lesbian protagonist of his last series got a happy ending so he’s bought some trust from me.
CW: ableist language, the threat of sexual assault, violence, death, drugging, consensual sex, internalized homophobia
If I'm being honest, Ship of Smoke and Steel took a while for me to really get into. Not because it was bad - the opposite is true, the writing is tight and the characters and world are interesting and vivid. I can't even pinpoint why, though I did feel like having gone to the release signing for this and hearing about it before I read it from Django had given me some preconceived notions about it that probably weren't quite what he was trying to explain to us.
Regardless, SSS is a fast-paced, fun and exciting - if somewhat too heavy - "YA" book. I'm putting "YA" in clearly sarcastic quotes as I am one of those folks who takes exception to what they call YA at this point. It's just a marketing scheme IMO. SSS has some of the characteristics of your typical YA necessities - non-fully-adult protagonist, shorter format, more/faster action, semi-dystopian. However, it also had numerous uses of profanity, sexuality, very descriptive and gruesome violence (and lots of it), and some generally very 'adult' themes. I'm not illusioned enough (or far enough away from being that age) to think that the 16-18 year old readers aren't already reading adult books and very much know 'adult things' - however, I think calling a book YA brings in a wider age range, and there's frankly a lot of content in this book (flagrant 'dick jokes' are on the first couple pages) that I would be surprised if most parents were ok with a 12-14 year old reading.
However, that does not take away from the book itself, which I enjoyed mightily. Isoka is a very 'real' feeling character, even if her magic and background were a little less than relatable for someone like me. She is very 'adult' for her age, but at the same time that was more common in older technological settings, and there is a bit of a '17-18 year old experienced crime lord?' thing - but this is fantasy, and that's how it works.
To summarize, Isoka is a magically imbued person from Kahnzoka, who uses her magical abilities in the name of violence, as the defacto crime boss of the area. She does it all for her sister, who she raised, and has arranged with her vast crime wealth to have living a noblewoman's life in protection. Normally in her country, those of magical birth are immediately required to be placed in the empire's service, however Isoka has hidden her powers for some time from the government. However, they know all about her, and ultimately she's informed that she will be the empire's sacrifice to the mysterious ship Soliton, an herculean 'ghost ship' that accepts magically imbued children as sacrifices on a yearly basis, never to be seen again - under penalty of destruction, as previous empires who did not pay the sacrifice found. She is leveraged by the threat of torture or death to her sister to capture the ship and return it to the empire for their gain.
The story follows Isoka as she fights her way into and out of many very perilous scenarios, works her way through many different types of problems and dilemmas, and has a really fairly well crafted and useful (LGBTQ) romantic angle. Isoka uses her significant powers to her advantage, and while she does feel a hair overpowered sometimes, it's also kind of fun and vindicating seeing the ways she finds to use her powers and grows into her newfound powers that link her to the ship. The 'twist' at the end was not particularly surprising, at the same time there were multiple times the book had me going 'whaaaaaaa?' when twists would appear.
As a whole, I really liked this book, especially the latter half. It's really well done, and while I have qualms with it being called YA, it's a good book regardless. It ended on an incomplete state due to being a series, and I have to say I was suuuuuper struggling with not having the next book ready to go when I finished. Already circled that one on the calendar.
DNF at 140 pages. The characters were unlikeable and inconsistent. The story was not that well written, flushed out, or interesting. There was awkward sexual talk and equally awkward sexual situations. I didn’t like the main character, thought the story was written for a younger audience which made the sexual stuff even weirder... and I just plain old didn’t care about the story and what was going to happen.
I liked this one, what a great way to start the year. With something good!
Isoka is not a nice person, she is a gang enforcer. She kills without remorse, she'd kill her best friend to save her sister, but then Isoka does not have friends. But still, she is great reading about.
I felt like the book did not start off any YAish, when she gets to the ship it gets a bit more YAish, but not that much. Not angsty, silly romance, silly drama, ok sorry YA, but so many have these issues! It feels strong and it stands on its own. No need to label it.
The story is great. She is sent to a creepy ship that comes to collect people of a certain age with powers, and they are given as tribute, cos else bad things happen. And the ship is untouchable, and no one knows anything about it.
What a creepy ship, why does it collect people with power? Who sails it? Why are there creepy things attacking?
We do learn a bit, but not enough. I need answers! I need book 2 at once.
Great book, quite the thrilling ride. Wexler does not disappoint.
A solid book with solid writing and world-building. At times it felt a little trope-y (even down to the title), and the characters were a bit lacking. The beginning was a built dull, but it really picks up after we learn more about the ship. Interested for the next book.
Disclaimer #1: I am a Django Wexler Fan Disclaimer#2: I am not a YA Fan
The start was hard for me because it was pretty violent and the stage was immediately set with a young, calloused leading lady. It's also written in first-person present which makes it a little extra intense and I'll admit that I initially had a hard time liking Isoka at all, much less wanting to read a full novel about her.
What followed, however, was much better. Things got strange quickly (making me very happy, I love weird fiction influences) and the plot was stronger than most of the YA I've read. But it is certainly cut straight from the cloth of fantasy YA material. You know the ones I'm talking about; the ones with the story arcs that are almost identical and have the same basic character lineup in maybe a slightly different setting. It carries a lot of the tropey and weak relationship baggage that I just can't stand (some of the dialogue in fantasy YA is so baaaaad). Isoka's character relationships are a little all over the place. One minute she's a hard-A who 's willing to kill one of her best friends to serve her own ends and soon after she's pining insecurely over how another person might react if she tried to kiss them. Bleh. Enough ranting from me on the genre, maybe I'm in the minority on this.
Yet, as I said, this one did have some great things going for it. The writing was quality, the plot kept me guessing and I am in love with the weird content. So, despite my apathy for YA, I will be continuing this series. And gladly at that.