When we last saw Theo at the end of Ash Princess, she had just escaped the palace with hostage Prinz Soren in tow to take refuge with her aunt, the pirate Dragonsbane. This is where we find her at the opening of Lady Smoke: almost literally adrift, surrounded by strangers whose loyalty most probably lies with their captain rather than their Queen, whom their captain openly patronizes at every opportunity.
What I love most about Theo is her ability to play the docile princess and still carry on with whatever she’s planning. How she handles herself—and her business—is quite believable. She’s a young queen, which means everyone and their father and brother and any other handy male wants to tell her what to do and how to do it. Rather than sugar coat that reality, the author leans into it and really gives Theo a chance to shine.
Theo plays the game as only she can. Raised first as a princess and then as a political prisoner, she’s an astute observer and manipulator. She’s not a warrior, and she doesn’t pretend to be—but she does recognize the need to protect herself, and so she seeks out instruction in knife wielding. Both the author and Theo herself are realistic about her combat skills, which is refreshing. Theo doesn’t magically become an expert, and she doesn’t go charging into battle with her knife at the first opportunity. But when the time does come to use her blade, she does so with focus and intention.
For a sequel, I was pleasantly surprised by the plot. Many second books are a bit scattered and not as exciting as the first, but the plot of Lady Smoke is tight and well-paced with some very satisfying twists and turns. The setting helps as well. Readers get to experience a new country in the same universe, which adds some excitement and keeps the story fresh. With this new setting come new characters, most of whom were well drawn and evocative (even if the emotions evoked range mostly between irritation and outright disgust).
While I wasn’t very invested or interested in Theo’s love triangle (or love triangles in general), I did find her dilemma believable. On the one hand we have Blaise, a childhood friend and fellow patriot. On the other we have Soren, the son of Theo’s captor, an enemy soldier who ordered the slaughter of innocents. The choice seems clear, but there are real complications. Blaise has a tendency to place Theo on a queenly pedestal and doesn’t want to see the darkness in her. He also just hasn’t been around for much of the last ten years. Soren, though Theo insists he doesn’t know the real her, knows a lot more about what she’s going through, a fact that Theo comes to appreciate when she finds herself sending her own men into a battle that could easily become a slaughter.
What I found most satisfying about the book was the fact that Theo’s decisions throughout the story make perfect sense for her character and are, for the most part, well justified by her circumstances. Even her most extreme choices carry a sense of inevitability and, while we might fear for her or mourn for her, we respect both her and her decision. I know I for one will be eagerly waiting for the third installment, due to be released in the spring of 2020.