The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson — New Review

My copy of The Smoke Hunter came via Lindsey, who described it as ‘a bit silly really but def enjoyable’. I took it home on the strength, mostly, of its opening paragraph, and I was not disappointed. Judging a book on its cover may be questionable (certainly it would have failed me in this case), but I find the first paragraph test to be pretty reliable.

It was a river of story without a source, something that haunted the jungles of New Spain like the ghost of one had never lived.

The Smoke Hunter, Jacquelyn Benson

I was impressed by how much was going on, not just in terms of plot and action, but in terms of genre. I’d assumed The Smoke Hunter would be a historical adventure, but I quickly reprised my opinion — it’s genuinely hard to call whether the romance is the plot and the adventure is the subplot or vice versa. Not that it really matters, as both are equally fast-paced and fun. By the end of the novel, I’d also decided (with the help of fantasy book club) to also include The Smoke Hunter under fantasy. I wasn’t sure at first, because the magic only crops up in one object and nobody knows how to replicate it or explain it, but the final pages hint towards more magic existing in the world of the book, so I’ve decided that it counts!

He pulled his shirt off over his head and Ellie forgot to be annoyed. The sight of his bare torso did seem to have that rather inconvenient effect on her.

The Smoke Hunter, Jacquelyn Benson

The romance tropes aren’t anything ground-breaking, but I still had a nice time reading them, especially as they’re wrapped up in prose far superior to some romance novels I’ve read. The same could be said for the adventure and historical elements. The details of the Mayan/Aztec civilisation had a surprising amount in common with The Road to El Dorado, which is hardly what I’d call a rigorous historical source.

Ellie’s appreciation for organising things endeared her to me immediately and the fact she’d learned at least one cypher by heart makes her a pretty good puzzles protagonist — not a category I realised I needed in my life, but I was bemoaning the lack of crossword compilers in fantasy fiction just a few weeks ago, so this is timely. Ellie reminded me of Lady Trent in Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons; if you enjoyed that, I’d say there’s a good chance you’d enjoy The Smoke Hunter.

I wouldn’t want to read only books by Jacquelyn Benson, because I think I’d get bored of the romance tropes if they weren’t well spaced-out, but I’d definitely read another one in a few months, or when I get to the end of my TBR, assuming that ever happens.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard — Reread Review

The brook, of which the banks were clothed with dense masses of a gigantic species of maidenhair fern interspersed with feathery tufts of wild asparagus, babbled away merrily at our side, the soft air murmured through the leaves of the silver trees, doves cooed around, and bright-winged birds flashed like living gems from bough to bough.

King Solomon’s Mines, H Rider Haggard

King Solomon’s Mines was the ‘colonial’ half of a post/colonial literature module that I studied at university, and there’s certainly a lot to say about the colonialism and the treatment of race in the novel. At the time, I was surprised to find that, despite that, it’s a very easy book to read. The beautiful descriptions of the landscape reminded me of Island, though King Solomon’s Mines is a great deal more violent. Brief, brutal moments really make an impact, despite the fact that they’re not dwelt upon by any of the surviving characters. Before the war was even declared, I numbered the body count at 108.

H Rider Haggard’s characters are enjoyable, but none of them really has an arc of development throughout the novel. The three British men are much the same at the end of King Solomon’s Mines as they were at the beginning, despite having undergone a unique adventure. Even Umbopa, whose circumstances change the most, is essentially the same person throughout. I haven’t read enough adventure stories to know whether this is typical, but I didn’t feel disappointed by it. King Solomon’s Mines is driven by plot, not character, and H Rider Haggard certainly delivers on the adventure premise.

The thing that most surprised me was how interested I was in the tactics of the battles. This isn’t something that I usually look for in books; as someone who struggles to visualise in much detail, overly complicated fight sequences can leave me confused and disorientated. But H Rider Haggard makes everything very simple and clear, and is thus able to establish the stakes in a way that might otherwise have gone over my head.

We are, in others words, in the world of the Adventure Story for Boys, a form which, deriving originally from the earlier adult novels of Defoe, Scott and Fenimore Cooper, had grown rapidly in the nineteenth century, partly as a reflection of Britain’s emergence from the Napoloeonic Wars as a great imperial and military power.

King Solomon’s Mines, Introduction by Dennis Butts

I don’t know if anything from King Solomon’s Mines will really stay with me over time, but it was interesting to revisit it! It’s made me curious about adding more classic adventure stories to my TBR, simply because it’s not a genre that I have a lot of history with.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.