Review of Smoke and Key by Kelsey Sutton

A sound awakens her. There’s darkness all around. And then she’s falling…
She has no idea who or where she is. Or why she’s dead. The only clue to her identity hangs around her neck: a single rusted key. This is how she and the others receive their names—from whatever belongings they had when they fell out of their graves. Under is a place of dirt and secrets, and Key is determined to discover the truth of her past in order to escape it.
She needs help, but who can she trust? Ribbon seems content in Under, uninterested in finding answers. Doll’s silence hints at deep sorrow, which could be why she doesn’t utter a word. There’s Smoke, the boy with a fierceness that rivals even the living. And Journal, who stays apart from everyone else. Key’s instincts tell her there is something remarkable about each of them, even if she can’t remember why.
Then the murders start; bodies that are burnt to a crisp. After being burned, the dead stay dead. Key is running out of time to discover who she was—and what secret someone is willing to kill to keep hidden—before she becomes the next victim…

Smoke and Key is a really hard one to rate and review, the premise whilst not unusual, is executed in a pretty unique style and the final third of the book is fantastic with great reveals and a race against time feel. However, there was also I lot that I didn’t enjoy about it too which was a shame.

But starting with what I loved! Firstly, the cover is fantastic and the blue tones have an eerie quality really fitting with the story. I found it refreshing that the story actually started at the beginning. I know that sounds strange, but too often books start at a random point throwing the reader into the middle of everything straight away, but our journey starts as Key’s does and we are in the dark just as much as she is. The use of items the dead were buried with to name the residents of Under was a lovely touch and it actually made it easier to remember the characters, of which there are a lot. It’s a very character driven story and whilst there isn’t really scope in the Under for world building the vision elements that Key undergoes gives the story it’s depth and colour.  Although the first vision felt strangely placed in the story I found their continuation was done really well with Key gliding between the two as she puts the pieces of her history and the Under together. At it’s heart Smoke and Key is a mystery which I don’t read a lot of and I have to say that I enjoyed this part of it very much, the closing stages are really exciting and I was really willing Key to figure it all out.

Smoke and Key as characters make for interesting protagonists, whilst I found their initial connection a bit creepy (because well, they’re dead) that dissipated as we learn more and whilst there were the beginnings of a triangle, the period setting of the piece stopped that from forming strongly. I don’t really want to say much more about the characters as it’s their mystery that needs to be solved! I just wished we learnt more about Brooch as her character seemed the most intriguing, yet she ended up pretty redundant in the story.

However…..Much of Under was put down to magic, which wasn’t for me really ever properly outlined or explained, so a lot of the time I found myself questioning what was happening which led me to become needlessly distracted – if there is no air how are the torches staying lit? is it magic? – which took away from the story. My biggest bug bear though was the use of working class “cockney” British English, I have to say that it was utterly cringey and I’m surprised it’s excessive use wasn’t picked up at editing stage. It’s like watching Dick Van Dyke during Mary Poppins; “parf” instead of “path” and “nawmal” instead of “normal” were some of the worst inflections.  A working class accent can be easily attributed without feeling like a parody, and I was left wondering if the author has even spoken to a working class Brit? I can tell you I sound nothing like that!! I don’t like it when authors force readers into an accent because it makes me think to much about how i’m reading it rather than what i’m reading and I end up pulled from the story. It also felt for the first half at least that the story didn’t really know how to get to where it needed to get to and lacked real structure. I also have to say that after vividly describing people in various states of decomposition, the quick flip then to Key’s fluttery feelings about Smoke and his “generous” mouth were pretty mistimed in the story line and felt a little gross.

Ultimately, I feel like Smoke and Key was a real missed opportunity, the premise was great, the last third was outstanding but I can’t let that cloud my judgement that I very nearly DNF’d this halfway though. If you don’t mind ploughing through the start, the pay off is a rich reward in this book but I can’t let my love for the closing pages pretend that this is more than a 3* read.

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