Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg
Charlie N. Holmberg’s latest novel is Smoke & Summons (2019) volume one of the NUMINA TRILOGY, in which a mysterious girl flees from magical slavery, girl meets boy, boy turns out to be a skilled thief with a troubled past and a heart of gold, boy helps girl avoid capture, feelings grow between them, and so on.
The girl in question is Sandis, and the boy (well, mid-twenties adult man) is Rone. Sandis has been in slavery for the last four years of her life, after being kidnapped and then sold to Kazen, a sadistic old man whose hobbies include keeping a bunch of teenagers in a deep-underground dungeon where he commits illegal acts of occultism. Sandis and the others like her are ritualistically-bound vessels into which magical spirits known as numen can be summoned, taking over the minds and bodies of their human hosts. Certain rules stipulate a vessel’s suitability for summoning, most prominent among them being virginity, and other, less clearly-defined criteria; one assumes it will be made clear in subsequent books what makes Sandis capable of hosting a powerful seventh-ranked numen like Ireth, a horned horse made of fire, while other vessels might only be capable of hosting a fourth- or fifth-ranked numen.
After Sandis witnesses Kazen doing something terrible, she makes up her mind to escape his underground stronghold — and to my surprise, it’s literally as easy for her as calmly walking up and out into the aboveground city of Dresberg. Kazen’s goons are almost immediately on her tail, chasing her for the entirety of Smoke & Summons, but her initial walk-out is so straightforward that I couldn’t imagine why it hadn’t been attempted previously. To her great fortune, she happens upon Rone in a tavern, which gives him an opportunity to, in short order, flirt with Sandis, protect her from Kazen’s men, display the immortality-granting/magical healing abilities of a mysterious ancient artifact known as an amarinth, and chase Sandis down after she steals the amarinth from him. For reasons I don’t fully understand, Sandis decides that she can trust Rone, and enlists him in her search for a distant family member who may be able to protect her from Kazen and who, she asserts, will be willing to do so on the strength of their familial ties alone. It’s questionable logic, and one of many times characters do something ill-advised for little to no reason other than to push the plot in one direction or another.
Rone has been a thief and man-for-illicit-hire for a while, having needed to support himself and his mother in the decade since his father abandoned them, when Rone was a teenager. Rone won’t kill anyone, but his scruples stop there, and he works diligently to keep his mother well taken care of. He’s in a mess of trouble as well; his most recent larceny job went all kinds of sideways, someone else has been falsely imprisoned for the crime, and Rone has only a short period of time to set things right. Meanwhile, there’s this naïve eighteen-year-old girl with beautiful brown eyes who can’t even sneeze without bringing down the wrath of city guards, local mobsters, the priesthood, and occultists; as much as he’d like to wipe his hands of it all and walk away to deal with his own problems, she’s got this amazing smile and lovely face… (Late in Smoke & Summons, Rone muses briefly that he wouldn’t have helped Sandis if she weren’t attractive, which is both hurtful and unnecessary.) The amarinth only provides him with a minute of magical protection in a twenty-four-hour period, which provides a little bit of suspense, though action scenes are generally timed in such a way that Rone never seems to truly be in mortal peril.
Holmberg’s worldbuilding is more engaging than the primary characters, whose growing romantic attachment seems to happen simply because it complicates decisions Rone must make at the plot’s climax. There’s no spark between Sandis and Rone, no real reason for them to feel anything other than a tentative trust over the course of a few hectic days, and I would have expected Sandis to be extra-cautious of trusting anyone after her years of torment and subjugation under Kazen’s hand. But the city of Dresberg and its surrounding country of Kolingrad are interesting, especially since Dresberg is deep in the thick of industrialization and the smoke produced by its multitude of factories covers the entire city in an omnipresent filth. Kolingrad is a militaristic, rigidly caste-stratified, deeply paranoid country from which emigration is nearly impossible, and the corruptibility of its law enforcement and its church is widespread and believable. I would have liked a bit more clarification about whether Kazen is Dresberg’s only numina summoner, which seems likely, or if there are others lurking about. Additionally, I would have liked more information about the differences between summoners and vessels, and what about a vessel determines what rank of numen they can withstand, though I suspect that may be revealed in later books.
Smoke & Summons has a strong YA vibe throughout, though the protagonists are old enough for the book to qualify as New Adult, and overall there’s a sense of brick-laying and world-building for a series rather than the creation of a strong novel which could both stand on its own merits and introduce readers to the first third of a storytelling arc. It becomes obvious quickly that not much, if any, of the plot threads will be resolved by the conclusion and its extremely dramatic cliffhanger. However, I’m intrigued enough to want to continue reading, particularly because I want to know more about the magic system surrounding the summoning of numina and how magical objects like the amarinth came to be, and I want more information about the long-lost civilization buried beneath and within Dresberg’s sewers. The second volume in the NUMINA TRILOGY, titled Myths & Mortals, is slated for an April 2019 release.
Smoke & Summons (2019) is the start of a new YA fantasy trilogy by Charlie N. Holmberg, with an interesting, rather dark occult concept underlying it. Demons and spirits, called numina, from the ethereal plane are able to be summoned and controlled by those who know the necessary rituals, which include painfully branding a person’s back with golden script and tattooing the demon’s name in blood above it. Kazen, an evil man in his sixties (seriously, he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever) has figured out a system to use these ancient powers for his own ambitions: he finds teens and children who have no family to protect them and who have the qualities necessary to be a vessel for a demon ― good health, no piercings, virginity and a cryptically described but vital quality called an “open spirit” ― and enslaves them. Then he can trot out the demon at will to terrorize and injure people so they’ll do what he wants, like sign over certain assets to him. What Kazen is doing is also highly illegal, so if any of his young vessels gets caught by the police, it’s an immediate death sentence for them, despite their innocence.
One of Kazen’s slaves is our 18-year-old heroine, Sandis, who’s been chafing under Kazen’s control and cruelties. Though she’s supposed to have total amnesia when Ireth, a fiery horse numina, possesses her, she has some vague recollections of events and feels a connection with Ireth. When Kazen does something particularly horrifying, Sandis finally musters up her courage and runs away. Her family is dead, but during her last outing with Kazen she saw the name of a person sharing her unusual last name. Sandis pins her hope on finding this Talbur Gwenwig, hoping he’s a long-lost relative who will protect her.
What Sandis finds instead is Rone, a twenty-something thief who has an ancient magical artifact, called an amarinth, that he can spin once every 24 hours, giving him protection for sixty seconds against any mortal wounds and, conveniently, healing any that he’s already gotten. When Sandis swipes the amarinth while Rone is protecting her against Kazen’s henchmen who are chasing her down, Rone’s and Sandis’s fates become tied together. Sandis also knows that Kazen is bent on summoning a far more dangerous demon, Kolosos, who might destroy their city of Dresberg. She’s not sure how to prevent him from doing this, but she wants to try, even if it means keeping her connection to Ireth.
I thought Smoke & Summons was an engaging novel, easy to read and get lost in, and teen readers who like dark magical fantasies with a romance subplot are likely to enjoy it. The plot has several weaknesses, though; the type that start to bother you once the excitement of reading the novel starts to wear off. I frequently wanted to shake Sandis and Rone, who occasionally make blindingly imprudent decisions. One that Sandis makes at the very end of the novel was the final straw for me, though Holmberg offers justification for her choice that may satisfy other readers. And once you cut through all the chasing (mostly by Kazen and his goons) and running around ― which takes up most of the story ― this novel feels like it’s mostly a long set-up for the next novels in the NUMINA TRILOGY.
I wasn’t quite as impressed with the worldbuilding as Jana was; Dresberg and the entire country of Kolingrad are a dirty, corrupt place, one that most people (except the wealthy and powerful) would love to escape from, were it not that the borders are so strictly controlled. But I didn’t really get much more from the setting than that, though Jana has offered some insights that make me reconsider my initial take. Sandis and Rone are a fairly typical YA fiction couple, dancing around their attraction and having their relationship nearly torpedoed with misunderstandings and external pressures. Kazen and his “grafter” henchmen are entirely villainous, without nuances to make them more sympathetic or at least understandable. Unlike Jana, I’m of the opinion that Kazen isn’t the only numina summoner in Kolingrad. Perhaps that would an interesting way for the plot to develop in next books?
What I appreciated most in Smoke & Summons were some of the secondary characters and subplots, especially those involving Rone’s long-lost father (this was a memorable episode, fraught with emotion, and a hard message about self-serving choices) and his former mentor Arnae Kurtz. Rone’s relationship with and devotion to his rather saintly (and definitely long-suffering) mother also ends up playing a key role in the plot.
Smoke & Summons is a darker novel than I would have expected from Holmberg, though not as dark as some YA fantasies I’ve run across, and Holmberg does pull her punches with the sexual content, if not with violence and death. This novel has a killer cliffhanger at the end (the one with the aforementioned hard-to-swallow choice by Sandis). Overall, it’s an interesting story and world, and despite some shortcomings in the plot and characterizations, I’m interested in seeing what happens in the next book in this series.
That was my view as well, as you'll see in my soon-to-post review
Thanks, Marion! This past academic year was so hectic that I read hardly anything for fun. I'm looking forward to…
It's great to read a review from you again, Kat!
Witch King! Although I really wanted more information/story from between the two timelines.
Only read 5 in may but managed to finally finish 2 series. Three of my reads were NetGalley advance reads…