I know the saying is that you should never judge a book by its cover, and as someone who reads a lot of books I know that’s good advice; however, I dare anyone to look at the cover for Hall of Smoke and not want a copy. Luckily, this is a book that you can judge by its cover, as the content inside is just as bold, and beautiful as the artwork on the front, and is a book that I had a hell of a good time reading.
The story follows Hessa, a young warrior priestess of Eang. The book begins with her having to travel to her goddess’ temple to pray for forgiveness for failing to carry out the assassination of a strange traveller that she was instructed to make by Eang herself. Unfortunately for Hessa, whilst she’s up the mountain her village comes under attack from the Algatt, a tribe of raiders from the country to the north. By the time Hessa returns home she finds the village in flames and her family dead.
This was not just a simple raid, but the exodus of thousands of Algatt, fleeing their home in the wake of a rival force. Now one of the last remaining Eangi priests Hessa sets out to finish her mission and kill this mysterious traveller; but she soon discovers that there is much more going on than she could ever have imagined, and god both new and ancient are awakening across the land.
One of the things that surprised me most about Hall of Smoke was that despite the length of an average novel (400 pages) it really managed to pack the content in, and it at times felt like reading a book twice the length. This was in part due to the amazing amount of world building that Long did, and despite the main bulk of the book taking place in a relatively small corner of this world it felt like a very big universe, one where you could get lost for hours exploring the history and lore.
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This history is an important part of the story, and over the course of the book the readers get to learn more and more about the pantheon of gods in Hessa’s world, both those new and those much more ancient. Learning about these gods and their history is an integral part of both the story and Hessa’s journey, and despite the book being packed with great action sequences it was these quiet moments of discovery that really hooked me and drew me in.
Long has managed to create a story that feels incredibly layered and complex, but one that never leaves you confused or feeling lost. Yes, you get a lot of information dropped on you at times, but this information is usually delivered in such a way that we learn of it through Hessa and her experiences of discovering these secrets and what they mean to her,which makes it much easier to digest than some other lore-heavy fantasy novels. We experience everything this way, through Hessa, and not only does she make for a narrator that makes the story and its complex turns easy to follow, but her journey is one of the best I’ve read for a long while.
So many protagonists end their journeys having learnt something, but often they still seem like the same person; Hessa, on the other hand, ends up being a completely different person come the end. She grows in ways that I never expected when I started the book, and by the end I was still desperate to spend more time with her. I wanted to see what this new Hessa would do next, what her life has in store for her come the conclusion. She’s the kind of character that I could spend a dozen books reading about and never get bored of her. If this is the only time I get to read about her I’ll be a little disappointed that I won’t be getting more, but still incredibly happy with the journey I got to go on with her.
Hall of Smoke was a book that I missed in its pre-release hype, one that I wasn’t really excited for or thought much about, but it’s quickly become one of my favourite fantasy books I’ve read in a good long while, and one that I know that I’ll be shouting about and recommending to a lot of people. The perfect debut novel.
Hall of Smoke is out on 19th January from Titan Books.