Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsOther Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsOther Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Other Words for Smoke (2019) is not a traditional coming-of-age story. Its composite parts include a magical house, a witch, her apprentice, their talking cat and an evil owl fed on bones that materialises through the walls. And yet, at its heart, the tale is universal: it explores the pain of adolescence, unrequited love and the turmoil of a family falling apart.

The story opens with twins Mae and Rossa huddled outside the wreckage of a burnt house. Found by the police, they are unable to speak of what had happened. Their aunt Rita and her teenage ward Bevan both perished in the blaze, yet townsfolk and journalists alike will never find out exactly what happened.

Rewind to three years previously, and Mae and Rossa find themselves on Rita’s doorstep for the first time. They have been sent to spend the summer with their aunt in the countryside. The enthralling, impossibly tall teenage Bevan also lives with aunt Rita, learning the trade of the older woman, who is a psychic medium.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of those that inhabit the house that summer, a twisting tale of longing, lies and magic unfolds.

It dawns on Mae that her aunt is a witch (aided by the discovery of Bobby Dear, the talking cat), and Bevan her teenage apprentice. Mae finds herself increasingly obsessed with Bevan; it is not until Bobby Dear spells it out that Mae realises she is in love with her. But she is not the only one: her brother Rossa finds himself equally enthralled by Bevan. Their hidden desires and secrets soon drive a wedge between the siblings.

Sarah Maria Griffin has woven a beautifully written coming-of-age story that, whilst seemingly fantastical, reads as an allegory for the pain of human experience as a whole. The conflicting desires and motivations of this intimate cast of characters, bound by a house that is so much more than it seems, are so compelling that readers will find themselves racing for the novel’s climax.

Griffin’s prose is as enchanting as the plot she weaves. Whole chapters are written in second person — a viewpoint that might seem gimmicky — but it actually works. The immediacy of these chapters serves to create a sense of claustrophobia — very fitting in a house that is trying to feed off its inhabitants.

Other Words for Smoke will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Its magical elements are grounded in realism and the universality of the characters’ experiences is sure to chime with many. Dark, dreamy and twisting, this book will not let you go until you’ve reached its devastating finale. Highly recommended.

Published in March 2019. Twins Mae and Rossa’s summer away from home becomes life altering when they discover a house full of witches, experience devastating first love, and face a dark power beyond any imagining. Sarah Maria Griffin’s haunting and literary sophomore novel explores the balance between love and fear, weakness and power, and the lengths one will go to claim one’s freedom. For fans of Libba Bray’s The Diviners and Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints. When the women from the house at the end of the lane went missing, none of the townspeople knew what happened. A tragedy, they called it. Only twins Mae and Rossa know the truth about that fateful summer. Only they know about the owl in the wall, the uncanny cat, the insidious creatures that devour love and fear. Only they know the trials of loving someone who longs for power, for freedom, for magic. Only they know what brought everything tumbling down around them. And they’ll never, ever breathe a word. With an unusual structure spanning five summers, intriguing characters, and a dark mystery, this uncommon novel will appeal to readers of Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch and Madeleine Roux’s House of Furies.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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