By Maureen Johnson
To Sum It Up: Stephen Dene has always been the perfect son, even if his parents barely acknowledge his existence. But after suffering an unbearable loss, Stephen takes extreme action. His decision has unintended consequences, however, including a newfound ability to see what most others cannot.
Review: The Boy in the Smoke is a prequel novella to Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London novels and fills in the backstory of Shades’ Stephen Dene. Although Stephen speaks briefly about his past to series protagonist Rory Deveaux in the first book, The Name of the Star, The Boy in the Smoke delves deeper into Stephen’s character and the events that shaped the person Rory meets in book one.
Stephen instantly intrigued me from his first appearance in The Name of the Star, so of course I had to read this. He projects collected and reserved, but there’s also a hint of something more going on with his character. A large part of that something more is the focus of The Boy in the Smoke, which will break your heart many, many times over in less than 100 pages. The story here gets quite intense, but it’s not melodramatic. This is a very finely crafted novella that delivers a sizeable emotional punch despite is page tally. Although I would have eagerly read a longer Stephen story, I think this one is the perfect length, giving readers new to the series a solid induction into its world while at the same time thoroughly filling in the backstory of one of its main figures for those who’ve already read one or more of the novels.
You don’t need to have read any other Shades of London books to jump into this. I do want to mention that although The Boy in the Smoke has a serious tone to it, Rory’s narration in the novels is punctuated with a fair amount of humor. So it’s not as though the entire series is somber, if that might be a concern in continuing on with it. Because I don’t read novellas often, I tend to forget how impactful they can still be in a relatively compact number of pages, and The Boy in the Smoke was a great reminder that I need to keep a better eye out for these series shorts.
All in All: This is available to read for free on Wattpad, and I highly recommend it, regardless of whether or not you’ve read Shades of London. And if you haven’t, read The Boy in the Smoke and then pick up The Name of the Star.