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.