‘The house at the end of the lane burned down, and Rita Frost and her teenage ward, Bevan, were never seen again. The townspeople never learned what happened. Only Mae and her brother Rossa know the truth; they spent two summers with Rita and Bevan, two of the strangest summers of their lives…
Because nothing in that house was as it seemed: a cat who was more than a cat, and a dark power called Sweet James that lurked behind the wallpaper, enthralling Bevan with whispers of neon magic and escape.
And in the summer heat, Mae became equally as enthralled with Bevan. Desperately in the grips of first love, she’d give the other girl anything. A dangerous offer when all that Sweet James desired was a taste of new flesh…’
I loved Other Words for Smoke. It’s wonderfully weird and honestly brutal in parts, the magic threaded through the story both hauntingly beautiful and harrowing at the same time. One of the things I loved most about it was its structure, for it visits the first summer of Mae and Rossa’s visit, briefly describes others both forward and back in time, and considers the second summer in greater detail, gradually revealing different fragments of what happened in the past that continues to influence the present and future. Some pages contain footnotes, which add a further poetic element to the narrative, often lending doubt or an alternative view to what has been asserted by a character.
I don’t want to spoil the story too much for anyone, but I have to say that Sweet James and Bobby are some of the best antagonists that I’ve seen in a good while. I don’t even think that antagonist is the right word for either of them, for they are much more nuanced and serve multiple purposes within the narrative and for each of the characters. Bobby is eerily endearing and I found his concept and that of Sweet James fascinating, even if I also found Sweet James downright terrifying at times! The effect Sweet James has on Bevan is one of the most haunting features of the story and possibly its most frightening facet, especially if he is to be thought of as a metaphor for a range of other unsettling elements that can impact young people (and adults).
I adore the magic in Other Words for Smoke, in the forms of Bobby and Sweet James and the more tangible side, such as the tarot cards, crystals and stove and how they all link together. How the twins respond to the idea of witchcraft and what’s happening in the house and how this changes at they get older is beautifully written, particularly Mae’s journey to understanding herself and taking possession of that in her life that she wishes to. It’s her pain that is particularly poignant, as is Bevan’s, and Rossa’s confusion is just as palpable a thing. The story doesn’t pull any punches or gloss over emotional or physical suffering, making it both a raw and enthralling read.
Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy for review! Other Words for Smoke is out on April 2nd and I would most certainly recommend picking up a copy ASAP!