Ship of Smoke and Steel introduces readers to a YA series to watch


Django Wexler’s first foray into YA fiction is a strange blend of maybe-science and magic that should draw all kinds of readers in.

A good opening isn’t everything in a book, but it goes a long way. Fortunately, Django Wexler doesn’t waste the opportunity he earns with Ship of Smoke and Steel, which released earlier this week from Tor Teen.

Our heroine, Isoka, has things to do in the first chapter, and she doesn’t waste much time showing us who she is: someone who is exceedingly good at violence, and maybe not as great at caring (but she’s trying her best, bless her). It’s that skill that gets her noticed and sent to the Soliton, a ship that takes teens with magical abilities as sacrifices, with her goal to take the ship over.

Along the way, though, she gets to learn a lot about who she is, how magic works, and so on. This is the first in a stated trilogy, but it could probably stand alone if you’re not willing to commit at least a few more years for Wexler to keep writing.

Fortunately, having settled on a character who’s good at fighting, Wexler is particularly adept at writing fight scenes — and writing scenes that make us think our heroine could lose. Isoka is good with her magic, if untrained, but other denizens of the Soliton are good with what they do as well; she is not completely invincible, even with her magic serving as a fairly effective set of armor for her.

Nor is she invincible from her own feelings. Much of the book involves her discovering some new facets to her sexuality, and though this writer doesn’t speak as an expert, Wexler doesn’t seem to Isoka’s apparent bisexuality; nor does he let her come to that realization without acting on it. She’s not all-savvy in this regard, either.

However, there are a few missteps here and there. For a YA novel, this one skews heavily to older teens, if not proper adults like this writer; it goes further than most of the other novels in its same imprint in both sexual and violent content. (Seriously: Tor Teen published this. I double-checked.)

Additionally, though Wexler normally seems to write Isoka well, he has one early issue with her scars — she describes where they are in detail on her body, and it seems extremely out of place. Why do we need to know what her body looks like, especially when she often wears clothes that are practical? It might seem like a small thing, but because it comes so early in the novel, it could easily put a reader off before Wexler seems to hit more of his stride with writing how Isoka inhabits her body.

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However, particularly for those older readers, who like a dash of what may turn out to be science fiction sprinkled in among the new magical system, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The pacing is sharp, and it’s hard to say no to a little romance in between the action scenes.