by Shana Abé, historical/fantasy (2006)
Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58804-4
The Smoke Thief features a bunch of folks called the drákon. As the overwrought prologue tells me, over the years these poor puny dragons, unable to withstand the onslaught of men, were forced to evolve shape-shifting abilities to survive among humans. Therefore, today the drákons are dragons who can change into humans as well as smoke, provided they have the abilities to Turn (capital T there, because remember folks, this is an exotic story) and survive the Turn.
The plot of The Smoke Thief is this: Clarissa Rue Hawthorne is a "runner" from her people. When she was seventeen, she fled the drákon community to London because of reasons that the reader will discover eventually should she read this book. There, she begins her career as the Smoke Thief, stealing diamonds and other shiny baubles. Christoff Langford, the Earl of Chasen as well as the leader of the English drákon community of Darkfirth, is not amused. His people know just from reading the accounts alone that the Smoke Thief is one of them and therefore he sets up a trap for the Thief. He will use their precious heart diamond as a bait. The trap works and fails. It works because it gets Christoff Rue. It fails because someone else ends up stealing the diamond. Heh. In order to regain her freedom, Rue offers to help get back the diamond for the drákon. Christoff, however, has already made up his mind that Rue will be his mate...
This historical fantasy is interesting in some ways, mostly because the drákon culture is presented in a most intriguing light. The pacing of the story is very well-done, making this an enjoyable read as well. Christoff is an alpha hero with enough beta tendencies to prevent him from becoming too overbearing, heh, while Rue starts out a pretty kick-ass heroine.
However, I get increasingly unhappy with the story as I turn the pages. This is because the characters become more and more like stereotypes as the story progresses. Christoff's conflicted feelings about Rue - he envies her freedom even as he knows that he has to bring her back to the fold, literally - are soon abandoned for familiar one-dimensional "mine, mine, mine/mate-mate-mate" antics. Rue starts out a kick-ass rebel, but she suddenly morphs into a submissive type of heroine. I seem to be missing some points in Rue's jump from rebel to cliché. One moment she's running away from the drákons but after taking care of an ill Christoff, she's suddenly singing a different tune about how they all can't help being who they are and therefore they may as well play the roles that nature intended for them. What brings about this epiphany, I have no idea. Then again, Christoff in dragon form during his illness ends up whacking Rue in the head a few times until she bruises so I suppose I can guess how she ends up thinking the way she does.
I don't know whether I like how the author also uses clichéd scenarios to get her characters to do that mate-mate-mate thing. For example, Rue ends up agreeing to be with Christoff because he threatens to kill a secondary character and you know how these heroines are, always willing to sacrifice themselves for kittens, puppies, strays, and everything else in the world. Ultimately, there seems to be some abrupt leaps of transitions when it comes to the characters' (especially Rue's) feelings from lust to love and the fact that the author has to resort to clichéd scenarios to force the mate-mate-mate thing to happen does not help improve matters. The romance in The Smoke Thief ends up more like a biological instinct than anything else.
The Smoke Thief is an interesting and entertaining introduction to a series, but at the same time it can be a pretty tepid and uninteresting romance.
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