by Tenea D Johnson, fantasy (2011)
Blind Eye Books, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9789861-5-5
Smoketown is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth. No, don't groan - this is not a typical romance or formulaic young adult romp. There is romance, but it's only a small part of the big picture, and even then, the romance here is more of a celebration of the emotions evoked in the process of mutual attraction. It's an introspective and probably self-absorbed portrayal of love. But then again, this story is a melancholic tale of loneliness and isolation, with a somewhat happy ending of course.
In the city of Leiodare, the wretched residents are shut off from the rest of America ever since a deadly epidemic nearly wiped out the entire population 25 years ago. Today, the residents try to survive like how you'd imagine they would. Due to the wonders of modern technology, the rich can afford to pay for reals - "tapes" of memories and emotions obtained from folks who experience these things first hand - and enter a virtual reality state with these reals to experience sensations and adventures. There is a thriving black market for more extreme reals, such as surgeries, kinky sexual experiences, and even death. Oh, and birds are outlawed as they are blamed for being vectors of the deadly disease that nearly destroyed Leiodare. If you are not wealthy, you lead a wretched existence in this place.
This story is about a few people who at the surface have nothing to do with each other. Anna Armour, a virtuoso who used to make and sell reals, waits in Smoketown, searching for a way to reconnect with Peru, her lover who walked out on her one day and never came back. Anna is haunted by her unusual gift as well as her past ties with this wretched city. Then we have Eugenio, an anthropologist who is supposed to help curb the infestation of deadly insects in the city, only to instead pry into the history of the city and uncover disturbing facts about the plague. His spiritual sister Lucine meanwhile has plans of her own to change the city for the better. And then we have Rory McClaren, the last surviving member of the city's once proud forefather clan, who isolates himself and lives on memories and reals in order to escape the present. Some of these characters never meet each other face to face, but thanks to the spiderweb that is fate, they will all play a role in shaping up the events that will ultimately become the climax of this story.
In many ways, the plot is merely a container of sorts for the author to fill up with all sorts of beautifully rendered emotions. I feel that Smoketown is more of an exploration of the human psyche. Loss, loneliness, idealism, cynicism, and hope may be by themselves banal words but in this story, these concepts take wings like the birds in this story. I find myself fascinated by the characters, thanks to the author's graceful prose. I know I found the author's style too confusing when it comes to her short story in the anthology Tangle Girls, but here everything is sheer poetry. The characters by themselves are complex and fascinating characters - especially Rory and Ann - and they make up for some of the more head-scratching moments in the plot.
Smoketown isn't a romance novel or a typical action-oriented urban fantasy romp. It has elements of both, but it's more about the believable human emotions that endure through harsh climates and heartbreaks. I do not know what to expect when I pick this book up, but I'm completely satisfied with what I get out of it. You may end up liking or loathing it, but something tells me this is one story you won't forget anytime soon.
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