Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler
Ship of Smoke and Steel follows eighteen-year-old magic-wielder Isoka as she fights to save the lives of the handful of people she loves. She uses her magic, the power of Melos from the Well of Combat, as a thug enforcing the rules of her mob bosses to keep her younger sister off the streets and comfortable. Then her abilities are discovered, and she’s forced onto a cursed ghost ship by her government.
Isoka is charged with taking over this ship capable of leveling or holding a city, or else her sister dies. Once on the Soliton, she fights to assimilate and rise to the top of the society of other sacrificial magic users, but monsters – both human and not – lurk within the vessel. As Isoka develops feelings for a leader who shares her abilities and a fearless princess with a power darker than Isoka’s moral compass, these monsters rise, threatening everyone on the ship.
Ship of Smoke and Steel is a violent story. People and other creatures are mistreated and die by each other’s hands. However, the gore is minimal and there is zero sexual violence. Sex is present, but nothing more than heated kissing is on the page. If you like action and brutal social structures, you’ll love this novel. If not, it might not be right for you.
A refreshing twist on the typical young adult protagonist, Isoka is loyal only to her sister and eventually another character. While she is likeable, she does things some readers might not agree with. She’s willing to coat her hands in the blood of others to keep her family safe. Unlike most young adult protagonists, Isoka doesn’t start out with morals. She has no problem killing and has become quite good at it. This makes Ship of Smoke and Steel a dark YA fantasy.
Wexler’s novel is about tough characters who aren’t afraid to cross lines. Isoka is not ashamed of her choices; she would make them again, and she’s not determined to become a better person. She represents teens who are forced to grow up and make hard decisions to survive faster than their peers.
Instead of the typical spell-based magic, some (but not all) characters of the novel are born with the ability to draw from one of the nine wells of magic. If you’re looking for Harry Potter-style, spell-based magic, look elsewhere, as this features innate abilities more in the style of The Last Airbender. Some characters can only pull a trickle of magic – the touched or the talented – while people like Isoka can draw much more, making them adepts.
A twist on typical magic systems I particularly enjoyed was how people born with the ability to touch the well of life, this world’s natural healers, are feared and often killed as children. In most stories, healers are respected to a degree but are thought of as less powerful than other magic wielders. In Wexler’s world, healers are considered the most dangerous of all.
I enjoyed reading Ship of Smoke and Steel and recommend other YA lovers give it a chance. It is well-written, thrilling, and filled with strong, unforgettable characters.