Book Review: Smoke City by Keith Rosson

Mike Vale used to be a famous artist, but now he's an alcoholic with his life in shambles. Marvin Deitz was once Joan of Arc's executioner, and now he's cursed to be reborn over and over with the memory of every single past life, never to live past his 57th birthday. When Mike's ex-wife dies and Marvin sees the supposed reincarnation of Joan on a talk show, the two men end up heading to LA together, to the city filled with ghostly apparitions called "smokes," both looking for their own form of redemption.

Book Review: Smoke City by Keith Rosson | reading, books, book reviews, fantasy, paranormal/urban fantasy, literary fiction
Title: Smoke City
Pages: 325
My Rating: 4 Stars
More Info: Goodreads, Amazon, Publisher


*I received an ecopy of this book from the publisher. This has not influenced my review.*

This was one of those books that called to me as soon as I read the blurb. And fortunately, this book was exactly what I was hoping it would be—strange, quirky, and offbeat, but also touching. The characters had depth and unique voices. The writing was rich. The plot was fairly slow, but that’s because the plot wasn’t really the point—this was all about the characters and their inner journeys.

I found Mike Vale, the alcoholic artist, to be the most interesting character. He seemed to be both awed at the beauty of all the life around him but also completely disenchanted with his own life and life in general. Above all else though, he was a mess. A perpetually drunk and hungover, battered, shameful mess. “Rolling chaos” he was called by one character. But, despite knowing he brought most of his problems on himself because of his drinking problem—which, just for the record, was not romanticized—and despite him being kind of a terrible person in some ways (e.g. cheated on his ex, drove drunk), I still pitied him and felt for him and found him likeable in an odd sort of way. In some ways, his disenchantment was relatable, and if not relatable, then entertaining. Haven’t we all fantasized at one point or another about punching some womanizing jerk talking loudly on his phone about his latest conquest? Or about dramatically quitting a dead-end job? Haven’t we all had one of those days where we figured we might as well jump into the next problem full-throttle since things couldn’t possibly get any worse? And his POV was written in a way that was almost poetic at times, but not in a fanciful, flowery sort of way. Kind of poetic but rough and gritty. Somehow it actually matched Mike’s simultaneous awe and disenchantment.

Marvin was interesting in a different way because of his past as Joan of Arc’s executioner, his guilt and torment over that (and the other executions and tortures he committed), and his despair over the curse of being reborn over and over but having to remember every life. The book explored the emotional impact of remembering a bunch of past lives like that in more depth than I was expecting. There was also a lot about his life as the executioner. I can’t say how accurate any of that was, but the author didn’t skimp on the harsh realities of life during that time; it was terrible and disgusting and miserable.

Even Casper turned out to be oddly lovable. He was just a young adult, fresh out of high school (I think), trying to get out of his small town and follow his dreams, and he was actually kind of sweet. He had Mike’s and Marvin’s backs, helped them out without even seeming to think about it, when they needed it.

And these three men, they just got kind of thrown together by chance (or maybe not chance, if you subscribe to Marvin’s beliefs about signs), but they stuck together, out of some sense of loyalty or divinity or maybe just plain desperation. But it was sweet.

I will say though that this book is not super fantasy/paranormal. There are the smokes, but, again, they’re not really the point. I’ve been told this book is kind of a cross between fantasy and literary fiction, so make of that what you will. It certainly didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

So overall, this is a book about unique, touching friendships, flawed but oddly likeable characters just doing their best to get by, redemption, and a whole lot of character development, and I’m glad I read it!


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  1. Angela @ Simply Angela

    This one sounds so unique. I enjoy character development and character driven novels, I just don’t want to be super focused to the point it interrupts the story. I like a balance of plot and development.

  2. Danya @ Fine Print

    Ooooh, this sounds like it hits all the right notes! I love writing that’s both poetic-feeling and gritty, and there’s nothing better than an offbeat ghost-y story. I really like the idea of the smokes, and I confess I’m a wee bit disappointed there aren’t more fantastical elements in this one, but I can hang with literary fiction, too!

    1. Kristen Burns

      I don’t think I’d ever read a book quite like this with that poetic but gritty feeling. I loved it! And I do like offbeat stories. I would’ve liked some more fantasy too just because that’s my genre, but I did enjoy it as it was 🙂

  3. Chauncey Rogers

    Hmmm… Sounds really interesting! I kind of like genre blenders that are literary fiction and something else, so long as they’re well done. It seems that this one manages to do that! I think I’ll just have to slip this one into my TBR. Also, great review!

  4. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer

    Great review Kristen! I love that it read like literary fiction but it was also kind of a mix of genres… it must have some historical in there too, right!? It sounds quite good… anti-hero protagonists are quite big right now… I feel I read about them all the time! ? Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! Yeah, it did have a bit of historical too because of the flashbacks as Joan of Arc’s executioner. I love protags who are flawed 🙂 Thanks, same to you!

    1. Kristen Burns

      You’re right, I don’t come across many stories that are super character-focused, but I love them too when they’re well-written! I hope you like this one 🙂 Thanks!

  5. Greg

    The title and the premise of this one kinda got my attention, pretty unique sounding story. And I like a purely character- focused journey once in a while! Love the idea of “rolling chaos” lol. He does sound like a mess, but yeah a relatable one! And the whole reincarnated executioner angle is certainly different. While it’s probably not my kind of read it does sound interesting- glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, I like super character-focused books when they’re well-written! And rolling chaos was just kind of the perfect description lol. He was most definitely a mess. This was unique though! Thanks 🙂

  6. Olivia Roach

    I am a character driven reader so if there is only a meh plot and really great character development and relationships I will still be a happy reader. I really like the sound of the poetic kind of writing here, and how it tied in with his character too. And an alcoholic artist as one of the promnient characters intrigues me. In fact, I was kind of intrigued by the cover alone so now I’m gonna have to look into this one more. :3

    1. Kristen Burns

      I agree, I can still love a book even if it hardly has a plot as long as the characters are great. The writing in his POV was just so amazing at times, and it really impressed me how it tied in with his character.

  7. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    This sounds weird in the best way. One of those books that if you try and explain it to people they give you a funny look because it doesn’t sound good but in actuality is really brilliant. It shouldn’t be good. I mean, an alcoholic with a dead ex-wife and a guy who is the executioner of Joan of Arc reincarnated over and over? Those are weird characters but this does sound like it’s a journey and all about the friendship and so I’m pretty interested in this one.

  8. Lola

    It sure sounds quirky and exactly like the type of book you would read :). That’s great the character all had their own unique voices. Mike does sound like an interesting character, but also a bit hard to like with his problems and the bad things he does, so it sounds great you still liked him in an odd way. It does sound impressive how the writer wrote that character in a poetic, but hard and gritty way. That does sound like an unique spin how it focuses on the emotional impact of remembering your past lives. It sure sounds like a very unique read!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Right?! I love unique and quirky! And yes, it’s always a good sign when a character is unlikable yet you like them anyway. And the writing in his point of view was definitely impressive.