Django Wexler is an accomplished fantasy writer, as evidenced by his epic fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns, as well as his middle grade series, The Forbidden Library. Between those two series, he’s shown that he can write complex, complicated characters of all ages while also tackling larger issues woven around weighty themes such as war, family, love, and more. With his newest novel, Ship of Smoke and Steel, Wexler flexes those powerful muscles once more, and ventures forth into the realm of Young Adult fantasy with a world that’s built around brutal magic, flexible morality, complicated feelings, and the difficulties of growing up when all you’ve ever been is a weapon.
Eighteen-year-old Isoka is an enforcer in the Sixteenth Ward of Kahnzoka, toiling for the larger bosses to keep order, and making enough money to keep her younger sister away from the brutality of it all, safe and secreted away in the Second Ward. Isoka’s cold, ruthless, and dangerous—not only because she’s hardened her heart in order to survive the extremes of the Sixteenth Ward, but also because she harbors a secret. She is one of the few people who can utilize the magical energies of Melos, the Well of Combat, and the strength of her power is even rarer. Keeping her talents hidden has kept her from the watchful eyes of the Blessed Empire, but those days are done. Discovered by the imperial powers of Kahnzoka, Isoka is given a choice: she can work for the Empire and discover the truth of a legend, or she can resist and watch her sister die for her foolishness. Isoka takes the Empire’s offer and goes off to find out the truth of the ghost ship known as Soliton, which comes to the harbor once a year to take magic children and teens like her. Making things even harder, it’s not enough to figure out the mysteries of Soliton: Isoka has to steal it.
Wexler’s writing, worldbuilding, and characters are engaging from the get-go, but things really shift into gear once Isoka gets aboard Soliton, where the mysteries are only just beginning. Filled with hundreds of people from around the world—all of whom have access to some Well or another, all with varying levels of skill—she’s entered into a chaotic and complex hierarchy. Unfortunately, she’s only just starting to get a grasp of the situation when she pisses off the wrong person and is sent to work with the worst crew on Soliton. Isoka is tenacious, formidable, and smart, however, and soon has to contend with what happens as she rises in the ranks, as well as a crew that looks up to her, higher-ups who want her dead, and her growing love for another woman—a woman with a secret even more dangerous than her own.
Ship of Smoke and Steel is a dark, violent, complex story that continues to grow and deepen in the telling. Wexler is economical and deft in his deployment of information in the service of worldbuilding and character, nudging events forward, capturing developing feelings and new complications with only a few sentences here and there. As much as there is going on in Ship of Smoke and Steel, you never doubt that Wexler has total control of the ship, so to speak. His characters are expertly fleshed out—they are fully realized, welcome additions to the story. There are princesses from far-off lands, capricious and brilliant and shy. There are cutthroats, made that way by a world that has only ever beaten them down, convincing them that their worth is proved only by the blood on their knuckles. There are power-hungry leaders, desperate to stay in their lofty positions, who use their authority to oppress and persecute those around them.
And then there’s Isoka, who has a whole world inside her. While initially painted as a cold, violent woman, Wexler reveals more and more layers until you can just about pinpoint the moment where this caring, loving, loyal person had to harden herself into a weapon in order to survive. Her journey through the novel is one of gradual softening, of giving herself space to care again, of finding something to care about once more. Ship of Smoke and Steel sails on so strongly because of Isoka, her hidden depths and the changes she goes through.
If you’re looking for a young adult novel with teeth, with the flavor of epic fantasy with a healthy smattering of mystery and romance and a story moves like wildfire, then you’re going to want to pick up Ship of Smoke and Steel. This was my first Django Wexler novel, and it’s certainly not going to be my last. Helmed by a master in complete control of his craft, this ship is definitely one worth following no matter where it sails.
Ship of Smoke and Steel is available from Tor Teen.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.