Happy Short Story Saturday, Reading Nook Readers!
Today, we're reviewing The Boy in the Smoke by Maureen Johnson. It occurs between The Name of the Star and The Madness Underneath, and gives backstory for Stephen, one of my favorite characters of the series.
As someone who's also been lucky enough to read the forthcoming Shadow Cabinet already, I will also say that the events of the book will definitely play a role - so read this before you read book three!
Paperback, 86 pages
Published February 24th 2014 by Hot Key Books (first published February 19th 2014)
Format read: Finished copy (purchased)
From New York Times bestselling author of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Key to the Golden Firebird and The Name of the Star, The Boy in the Smoke is a thrilling prequel to The Shades of London series.
Johnson takes us back into the history of Stephen Dene, the serious and enigmatic love interest that Rory has gotten to know through two Shades of London books.
We see early on that while Dene comes from a privileged background, it's also an emotionally empty one. He has the type of parents who accidentally forget to pick him up at the start of spring vacation, and won't even bother apologizing for that gaffe.
The one bright spot in Stephen's life - his sister Regina - is also the most unstable one. She's prone to doing self-destructive things, including getting high while she's out at lunch with her brother. Unfortunately, it's not too long before her behavior catches up to her, and she's lost to Stephen forever.
Johnson provides a thoughtful, introspective look at how Stephen struggles to cope with his loss, by politely and studiously working his way through the rigors of Eton. However, he also grapples with his own increasing desire to become a police officer, and it's that difficult reconciliation between duty and heart, which eventually leads Dene to try and take his own life.
While the end result of Stephen's attempt will not be surprising to readers, the process of getting there will add another layer to Stephen, and ultimately, Rory's story. Readers get a better sense of what it takes to become a leader of the new ghost-hunting team, and how there are some truly dangerous elements in the city that are just waiting to be found.
Readers will likely also develop an even stronger affection for Stephen as well; both his realization of his dream to become a police officer and to help others, are sketched out in a way that shows that no matter how standoffish he may be, this is a young man with a genuinely kind heart, and desire to make the world a little bit better.
(Return visits to the boathouse, anyone? *Sob*)
As someone who has been fortunate enough to read The Shadow Cabinet, I will also say that Johnson includes some nice subplots that set up book three nicely.
(Seriously - she's got the tiara and everything!)
In a brief 86 pages, Johnson not only gives readers a complete look into the tragic, strange history of one Stephen Dene, she also sets up an understanding of how Dene eventually becomes the young man who will play such an important, integral part of Rory's world.
Readers will undoubtedly finish reading The Boy in the Smoke, and return to The Name of the Star and The Madness Underneath to look at Stephen's evolution with newer and more insightful eyes. Readers will also have a better sense of just what it is that Rory's fighting for in The Shadow Cabinet, and just how high the stakes have truly become.