Smoke in the Glass was a book that piqued my interest at the Gollancz Blogger Evening in March – I love books that explore the concept of immortals and how they can fit into society, so I was excited to see a book that looked at three lands that have adapted to the existence of immortality in different ways, and one that… well… didnt!
Book: Smoke in the Glass by Chris Humphreys
Read before: No.
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by publisher. All opinions my own.
There are some fairly classic fantasy settings here, with a Northern European mead-halls-and-brawls land (Midgarth), a Roman-ish nobility-and-commoners land (Corinthium), and an exotic cults-and-festivals land (Ometepe), but what is unusual is to have all three butting up against one another, and yet totally unaware of the others’ existence. This world is broken up by uncrossable mountains and seas, and so each culture thinks that it’s the be all and end all of civilisation – until mysterious foreigners show up and start murdering immortals (yes, they’re the can-die-if-you-really-try kind). Each different land has a very different feel, and this is one thing that the book does really well. The snow and ice really comes across vividly in the Midgarth scenes, and the reliance on llamas for wool and milk and meat is a fun twist that makes the cult-land of Ometepe much more interesting – I’ve not seen much fantasy with South American influences. We don’t see the fourth land, the land the assassins come from, at all, but there are ominous hints that had me really intrigued to see what their situation is.
The worldbuilding here is a real strong point, and I really loved switching from land to land and seeing just how much difference can be made with different reactions to the existence of immortals. In Midgarth, immortals are celebrated like Norse gods, but live among their people and are very approachable. In Corinthium, the immortals have formed a sort of court which new immortals are sent to for training – they keep themselves mostly aloof from mortals, but are not worshipped or seen as gods – just richer and “better” people. In Ometepe, one immortal has made sure that there are no others – he is the ultimate god and king of his people, and he’s got a very cushy set up, with a bride from each province he owns, and sacrifices in his honour! This is so, so clever, as the geographical limitations of the world have allowed this total separation of cultures, and it’s going to be so much fun to watch it all collapse as they discover each other!
We follow the viewpoint of one character from each of these lands. I most enjoyed the storyline of Luck, who is an immortal from the Viking-y land of Midgarth. As a witty man, but not a physically strong one, he’s something of an outsider and perfectly fits the trickster trope, but he actually seems to be one of the kindest and best-balanced characters in the book. He’s the person who first becomes aware that other worlds may exist, and I really enjoyed watching him come out from his brothers’ shadows to try to fix the problems. He’s definitely my kind of character!
In Ometepe, we follow Atisha, who becomes the chosen bride of the single immortal of that world, who has set himself up as a god – she is first shown as a plucky, sensible heroine, and I was excited to see some harem intrigue and women-behind-the-throne maneuvering, but the plot is not kind to her, and I felt that a lot of her agency was stripped from her. I’m hoping that after the events of this book (no spoilers), she’s able to regain some of her sense of self in the sequel.
In Corinthium, we follow Ferros, who as an ex-soldier who has recently discovered his immortality, has to integrate into the immortal nobility. Ferros was the least interesting character to me, simply because I don’t enjoy the more military side of fantasy, and I didn’t find his main plotline (stay faithful to his wife or be distracted by a hot immortal) that relevant to the rest of the book. I think that in a way, this is down to the fact that the three main characters don’t interact at all, and while Luck is proactive, Atisha and Ferros are very inward looking and focused on their own lives. I suspect that things will come together much more in the sequel, especially as our three main characters are forced to confront each others’ existence. This book definitely contains some much needed set-up, and I’m excited to see the stories start intertwining.
One thing I do feel that I need to mention is that this is not the most gender-sensitive book I’ve ever read, and a trigger warning may well be necessary. A much-mentioned baby is intersex, and their father (who to be fair is probably evil) repeatedly uses extremely derogatory and dehumanising terms about them – and a lot of other characters put a lot of focus on the baby’s genitals, which I found kind of uncomfortable. As they figure in a prophecy due to being intersex, I can’t imagine that they won’t be a prominent character over the rest of the series, so I wonder how this will pan out as they grow up. Another minor character who appears to be gender-fluid is the subject of multiple pages of Ferros’ internal monologue, wondering what pronouns to use and what gender they ‘really’ are, and he eventually takes someone else’s word for it – while I appreciated that he attempted not to use any pronouns until he knew he wouldn’t misgender them, I did find the insistence on knowing a little weird.
Overall, I think that this book suffers a little under the weight of needing to put in the world-building work, but should be the beginning of an epic, unusual, and really original fantasy story. It’s pretty short for fantasy, at just over 300 pages, so I’m betting that taken together with later books, this is going to be a really impressive story. I’m definitely interested to watch the carefully-delineated world fall apart, and what it is going to be rebuilt into. A hopeful three and a half out of five cats!