Tanya Huff’s The Smoke Trilogy: Smoke and Shadows, Smoke and Mirrors, Smoke and Ashes

One thing that I find marginally irritating about some of my favorite fantasy and science fiction writers is that if I don’t pay attention for a minute or two, they start a new series and then I have to catch up with them. Tanya Huff, for example, one of those protean writers who seems to be able to write in any subgenre, from “classic” fantasy to military sf to supernatural thrillers, and do it well, started a new series while I wasn’t looking. So I went back and caught up.

Library Journal insists on calling this series and the preceding Blood series the “Henry Fitzroy mysteries,” even though the first is centered on Victory Nelson, PI, and this one on Tony Foster, who was introduced in the Blood series as a Toronto street kid and sometime food source for Fitzroy. (Who, in case you didn’t know, is a vampire.) Tony and Henry are now in Vancouver, Tony working on a film crew and Henry still writing romance novels under the name “Elizabeth Fitzroy.” Henry never approved of his father’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, so in his opinion his half-sister has as much right to the name as he does, being also a king’s bastard.

Smoke and Shadows, the first book, finds Tony and Henry in Vancouver. Tony is working as a PA (that’s “production assistant,” and the beginnings of a career) for Canada’s “most popular vampire detective TV serial.” Faced with an invasion by the Shadow Lord, Tony enlists the help of Arra Pelindrake, FX wizard for the show, who really is a wizard. Arra doesn’t want to get involved, but Tony’s own courage helps her to refind her own: the Shadow Lord had destroyed her own world and is now after her — he doesn’t like loose ends. Tony, as it turns out, is also a wizard, and when she returns to her own world, Arra leaves him a laptop with an instruction program for his training.

Smoke and Mirrors pits Tony against the spirit that is haunting a house being used for a location shoot for the series. The ghosts are caught in loops which replay their deaths, all engineered by the spirit to increase its strength so that it can break free of the house. Tony and a group of cast and crew — including Lee Nicholas, second lead in the show and Tony’s love interest — are trapped in the house overnight.

Smoke and Ashes gets a little more complicated. Tony is now a TAD (that’s “trainee assistant director,” and a definite move up — or will be when they hire a new PA). There is a Demonic Convergence beginning, which simply means that the world is in for a run of imps as the barriers between the universes thin. The action is precipitated by the Demonlord Ryne Cyratane, whose handmaiden, so to speak, is a stuntwoman, Leah Burnett. Leah is about 3500 years old, and was the last survivor of her village after Ryne Cyratane wiped them out to generate the power to return to his level of hell. Leah carries a tattoo around her navel which is, in actuality, a spell that holds the Demongate closed: as long as she lives, the gate is closed. Someone is now trying to kill Leah, and the someone(s) aren’t really human. Even remotely.

Huff has brought together elements of two of her most entertaining series for this one. As a spin-off from the Blood series, we have her adroit handling of the supernatural thriller, peopled by a cast of characters who only become more interesting as the series develops. Add to that the sharp, in-your-face attitude of The Keeper Chronicles (and the dialogue that goes with it), and you have, in my opinion, a winner.

It’s a difficult balance, between earthy, sometimes raucous contemporary diction and serious stories around Tony and Henry Fitzroy on the one hand, complicated by history and the territoriality of vampires, which extends to their lovers, even ex-lovers; and of Tony and Lee Nicholas, complicated by Lee’s ambivalence and mixed signals. Oh, and there’s Constable Jack Elson, who involves himself in all the adventures, attractive, forceful, and straight. Probably.

Huff plays with stereotypes, in this as much as in any of her other work, and she does it consummately well. I think it’s because she has the ability to stand outside of them and make us look at them in new ways, as well as building depth and richness into characters who otherwise would be — well, stereotypes. It’s not an easy thing to do, and there is some sense in the early parts of Smoke and Shadows that she is feeling her way, but she gets on top of it pretty quickly. But Huff hits enough of the sensitive points that we sit there and say “Ow! Been there. . . .”

It’s tremendously exciting when an author whose career you have followed reaches a new level of mastery, and I think in this one that’s happened with Huff. While I found The Keeper Chronicles entertaining and refreshing, the characters were not so substantial as those in the Smoke series; my reaction to the Blood series was much the same — engaging, well-thought, but not quite finished. Add in the fact that Huff is a “good” writer — she can pull you right into the story and keep you there.

How good do I think these are? I keep rereading them, and they’re holding up just fine. Not many books do. (And note: Happily, the publisher has just brought out an omnibus edition of all three novels.)

(DAW Books, 2004)
(DAW Books, 2005)
(DAW Books, 2006)
(reissued by Ace/DAW in an omnibus edition, 2019)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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