18 May 2016
My latest foray into the world of indie authors is “Shades of Smoke”. So, what is my first observation? Well, this book personifies that old saying perfectly – “don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is a good story.
Shades of Smoke is the debut novel by the writing duo of Alan Denham and Graham Buckley. It was released in 2011, but I was approached by Alan on Goodreads to see if I would like to read it, which was quite flattering. I had to accept. And overall, I'm glad I did.
So – what is this book? Well, from communications with Alan, he scoffed at the idea of this as a romance, and in true reviewer fashion, I am going to throw that back in his face. Romance is a key part of this story, and is a key part of what drags the reader on. But that’s good – it’s a nice story; a story where secrets and customs stand in the way as commanding barriers against that powerful master: emotion. So how do the protagonists overcome these barriers? That is one of the book’s questions.
And a story is nothing without its questions.
But it is not a romance novel. It is definitely fantasy, and in fact, it has a distinct murder mystery feel to it. Without giving too much away – though some – our protagonist finds himself on a long journey through isolated lands with strange happenings (and a certain vindictiveness) afoot. It is up to our character (though not formally) to uncover the truth of things, and this is the second key question. It is a “who dunnit” with a romantic interest for our investigator to ensure the reader’s emotional connection.
And in my naïve mind, this is a pretty winning combination. It is, as already mentioned, a nice story.
So – why is this not a standout story? Well, here’s the flip side.
In my view, the book is too long. And I think that this is actually quite easy to see from the structure. Roughly the first 40% of the book is filled with chapters that are not closely related to the main thrust of the story. Indeed – up until about 40% of the way through, I was more inclined to call the book “The Collected Adventures of Cormell” – because that is really what it was.
So, what is this first two fifths of the book? Well, I think that I can only really describe it as back-story. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is well written, and each chapter has its own arc and pull, but the problem is that each chapter just sort of ends. And there are no residual questions, so the compelling need to continue reading is absent. I only found myself picking up the book again because a) I knew I could read a quick self-contained short story; and b) I had committed to reviewing this book. But to reiterate: the quality of writing itself is excellent throughout, so it was never a hardship to read – just not compelling.
Until Cormell starts his journey.
Now, I wouldn't recommend starting this book from 40% through, but I would suggest that a lot of what goes on in the first section could have been more elegantly woven into the fabric of the story, and indeed, some of it may be unrequired at all. But let us not dwell on this – there is a great story to think about.
Now, one of the things that Alan and Graham have done really well is world-building. This truly is an exceptionally thought out fantasy novel. Each and every detail is considered carefully, and indeed, more than that, everything makes very tangible sense. And we have our magic, though even this is cleverly positioned between science and fantasy. Indeed, some of the magic is actually quite difficult to swallow in substance (I won’t give anything away), but because it is so cleverly explained, this is forgiven. And what’s more, though magic clearly has a certain power, it is not a dominating feature of the world – which is important.
And to further elaborate – quite literally every detail in the world of this novel has been exquisitely thought out. Even down to the petty politics of small towns, and the codes of behaviour along a single, unique trade route. It really is excellent world-building.
Now, part of the flip-side of this great world building is that Alan and Graham have so much to share. This means that, even where the book really kicks off, the pace is somewhat sedate. But I don’t think there is actually a problem with this if we accept that the slow-burning romance is a key ingredient in the recipe, and the language itself never feels laboured as a consequence – only thorough.
However, I do suspect that this does not quite reflect the intentions that the writers had in mind of when they described the book on Amazon. This suggests a fast-paced book with a comic edge, and though the comic edge is present, the fast pace is denied by the huge detail. As I say above, I don’t actually think this is a problem – just an observation.
But in fact, while I remember, there is one part of the book which appears to me to be entirely indulgent and unnecessary. The Prologue really has absolutely no bearing on the story and probably can be skipped. And in fact, I think it might actually be nice to have this book as a “pure fantasy” in the eye of the reader, until it is revealed later on that it is actually set “After the Fall” – that would be a big inward breath moment. But whether the content of the Prologue is key to the ultimate (beyond this volume) story or not is irrelevant; as written, it just doesn't work.
And a final observation: I gather from Alan that this has not been professionally edited, but this is actually quite hard to tell because the writing is really good. There are a few words that come up too often to be comfortable – ‘demure’ and ‘non-sequitur’ spring to mind – but the language is generally pretty good (albeit sedate as I mentioned earlier).
And the cover is an Achilles heel, but if you are reading this then hopefully you can look past that superfluous problem.
Indeed, overall this is a good story, and I enjoyed reading it. I wish it was half the length, but I feel satisfied nonetheless. Whether I am compelled to read the “Further Chronicles of Cormell”, I am not yet sure, but I am certainly glad I have met him and experienced his world – it really is a wonderful creation.