Rosamund Hodge’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire is an intense and complex re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. Two young members of powerful enemy clans, Mahyanai Romeo and the Juliet Catresou, fall deeply in love against the traditions of their people and the wishes of their families. When their attempt to defy Catresou tradition tragically backfires, Romeo finds himself strangely connected to Paris, the Juliet’s intended Guardian, while the bitter young priestess Mahyanai Runajo discovers the Juliet just at the brink of death. The pairs must race against time, necromancers, and death to save the doomed city of Viyara — the last city left alive after the Ruining — and their own lives.
I picked up Hodge’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire because I had loved her previous fairy tale retellings, Cruel Beauty and Crimson Bound. I knew Hodge could inventively reimagine familiar stories with delightful, heart-wrenching, and romantic twists as well as create vast new worlds for readers to delve into. Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, however, is a mind-blowing culmination of Hodge’s great storytelling strengths: Her characters are unique and compelling; the fantasy world is complex, interwoven into the story itself and openly challenges the problematic aspects of common high fantasy; and her version of Romeo and Juliet is fascinating, to say the least. I’ve read each of Hodge’s books in record time, and Bright Smoke, Cold Fire was no exception.
The similarities to the famous Shakespearean tragic romance end at the characters’ names and other brief plot points. The story of star-crossed lovers in Bright Smoke, Cold Fire is merely the backstory: We learn of Romeo and the Juliet’s meeting and romance via brief flashback chapters and their own depiction of their significant other. The final scene of the play, when Paris interrupts the final death scene, is not the end; it is the beginning. This story is completely new and different, but includes brief references to parts in the original play that will keep any fan or academic of Shakespeare entertained. My personal favorite was Hodge’s completely unexpected interpretation of the original line, “I am all the daughters and also all the sons of my father’s house.”
So how does Hodge change the beloved romantic tragedy? She gives Juliet a sword, of course, and challenges Romeo and Paris as well as Juliet and this version’s Rosaline to become allies. In this world, a disaster known as the Ruining has wiped out everything, and anyone outside of the magic walls of the great city Viyara will die and return as the living dead. All the surviving people in the world have congregated in the city, and only the Mahyanai and the Catresou clans have the numbers and prestige to run the city and vie for ultimate power. Traditions, faiths, and fear clash throughout the city, turning it into a veritable explosion verging on the tipping point. The Sisters of Thorn, of which Runajo is a member, are desperately performing blood sacrifices; the Mahyanai vie for power against the Catresou; and necromancy is running rampant and unchecked, gaining followers, in the Lower City. Hodge does an incredible job of not only creating a complex and detailed fantasy world, but she sustains its complicated intricacy throughout the text, portraying the world via traditions, beliefs, and characters’ anecdotes and experiences.
There is rather large cast of characters in Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. We experience the storylines from the alternating points of view of Runajo and Paris since the two magically connected pairs do not interact throughout the text. This leaves us with a lot of characters, a lot of names, a lot of roles, and a lot of peoples of which to keep track. However, each of Hodge’s characters is so distinct from one another as well as other characters throughout the young adult fantasy genre, that you get attached to every one very quickly. I was most enthralled by the characterizations of the two girls in contrast to the characterizations of the two boys. Both Runajo and Juliet are infinitely bitter and angry; Juliet is violent and fiercely emotional while Runajo is calculating and seemingly unfeeling. She insists her heart is made of stone, and her ambivalent treatment of others is indicative of this. Both girls are obsessed only with the greater good, protecting Viyara from its doom even if it means their own lives, and never portray any stereotypically “female” emotions or characteristics. Paris and Romeo, on the other hand, are full to bursting with volatile emotions and feelings. For much of the start of the book, Romeo is crying and Paris is annoyed and embarrassed by this. Romeo, despite being the city’s greatest swordsman, is soft, gentle, and caring; it is his love that gives Juliet a soul and a name. Paris, though he attempts to hide his emotions, is just as volatile in his character as Romeo: He is often nervous and actively hard on himself for being a poor swordsman. Instead of being overly perfect masculine characters, Romeo and Paris have flaws and emotions, make mistakes, and care for others. In this and other ways, Hodge’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire throws out many problematic stereotypes that inhabit the high fantasy genre, young adult or otherwise.
Though all of these complexities threaten to bog down the plot of Hodge’s latest young adult fantasy, each serves to strengthen the story and its characters, allowing readers to inhabit a world of turmoil, danger, friendship in the darkest of places, and star-crossed love. A quick heads up: This, unbeknownst to me, is the first book in a sequence; I was unprepared for a heart-wrenching cliffhanger right as the climax was reaching its peak. All in all, Bright Smoke, Cold Fire is a vivid and extraordinary retelling of a classic tale as well as a perfect read for fans of Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass series, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, and even George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Prepare for danger, mystery, secrets, and blood; prepare for unbreakable love, and a world on the brink of disaster; prepare for Juliet.