Bright Smoke, Cold Fire
One of the hardest things about reviewing is grading a book with strong writing that for some reason leaves you cold. Bright Smoke, Cold Fire is such a book. Normally, I love books that put a different spin on classical literature, and stories featuring lovers from rival clans is one of my favorite tropes. But despite the homage to Romeo and Juliet, I found myself repeatedly putting the book down to do something else. That, along with a convoluted central mythology, makes this a book I can only recommend if you are an indiscriminate fan of YA fantasy.
In the city of Viyara, the order of the Sisters of Thorn works tirelessly to keep the city alive. Years ago, an event called the Ruining turned most of the world’s inhabitants into the revenants – the walking dead. Only a wall maintained with magic spells by the Sisters keeps the city from being swarmed by the revenants. But even the wall may not keep Viyara safe for much longer, for the wall is powered through human sacrifice. At the beginning, an offering of human life every seven years is required. Now, it’s every six months. If something is not done soon, the wall’s increasing thirst for blood will kill the city just as surely as any revenant outbreak would.
Juliet Catresou, a citizen of Viyara, is born and bred as a weapon for the Catresou clan. As The Juliet, she is compelled by a spell to spend her life exacting vengeance on those who have wronged her clan. A guardian is selected for her upon reaching adulthood so that his mind can be joined to hers in sharing this terrible burden. But when Juliet falls in love with Romeo Mahyanai, the son of a rival clan, she attempts to make Romeo her guardian in a ceremony that goes horribly wrong. In the aftermath, Juliet is killed and Romeo ends up bound to Paris Catresou, Juliet’s chosen guardian who arrives on the scene just in time to be swept up in the magic Juliet has unleashed.
Runajo Mahyanai is a novice with the Sisters of Thorn and has a plan for saving the city. But to carry out her plan, she must first become a full Sister, which typically takes seven years. In her desperate bid to fast forward through the process, Runajo incurs the wrath of the High Priestess and is sentenced to sit vigil at the Mouth of Death. While there she unwittingly pulls Juliet Catresou from the land of the dead back to the land of the living. For her troubles, Runajo is now bound to the truculent Juliet, who may just be the one person that can help her save Viyara.
My biggest problem with Bright Smoke, Cold Fire is its overblown world-building. The chapters alternate between the adventures of the two pairs of protagonists as the women try to find a way to save Viyara and the men become embroiled in a plot instigated by Juliet’s father to open the gates of death. Along the way, they uncover layer upon layer of myths and conspiracies involving the revenants, the reapers, and other assorted undead. It feels as if every time the story needs a push, a new element of the central mythology is introduced, which only left me scratching my head and wondering where the story was actually going. Both the Catresous and the Mahyanais are given religious beliefs that are discussed at length in abstract terms; and the deliberately vague language extends to other aspects of the story as well. Take, for example, this line uttered by a villain as the only explanation for his actions and motivations:
I helped begin the Ruining. I have died fifteen times since then, drenched the world in blood so that I could walk back from death of my own accord.
The characterizations of our main protagonists are just as inconsistent as the world-building. With the two pairings operating on different trajectories for the entire book, it’s important for the pairs to develop rapports if not exactly friendship. Unfortunately, that never happens which makes spending time in the heads of these four miserable people quite a, well, miserable, experience. Paris’ relationship with Romeo is the more balanced, as the men eventually achieve a truce that makes their newfound reality tolerable. Runajo’s tie with Juliet, however, proves to be more problematic. Since Runajo can command Juliet to do her bidding, Juliet is naturally resentful of her. But Runajo’s reactions to Juliet alternate between indifference to concern based on the needs of the plot. One minute she is convinced that Juliet needs to die to restore balance to the world. The next, she has decided that Juliet must live because:
But Juliet had hungered for justice, something infinite and eternal, and that meant she had thought of it. To think of something was to hold it in your mind, and to hold something infinite, you must be in some way infinite yourself.
She could not kill this girl who had infinity behind her eyes, and that meant she could not kill anyone, because the capacity to comprehend the infinity lay in all people.
In the end, the book also concludes so abruptly that I had to flip through the pages several times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. A quick search online did not yield any mention of this being part of a planned series, so I can only surmise that the author meant to end the book on such a downbeat, brutal, and ambiguous note.
Overall, my reaction to the entire book can only described as one of befuddlement. At no time during my reading experience did I feel like I had a firm grasp of what was going on or any of the character’s motivations. I am sure that this is not the author’s intention, but the title perfectly sums up my feeling towards the book. For me, this book is all Bright Smoke, Cold Fire (or in other words, smoke but no fire).