I have known Kate Smith for a very long time, and I’ve been reading bits of her fiction for nearly that long. The thing about Smith’s writing is that she is often quite opaque – if you don’t get her song lyric references or her film references, you might be a bit lost. But she writes with a lot of passion and a lot of quirky description – which sometimes gets away from her but sometimes really works nicely.
Illume is set in Paris, and focusses on Thane, who works for the equivalent of UNIT or Shadow Unit or all the other not-really-police-branches who deal with the things that go bump in the night. This time, it’s about lovers who think they can make their love immortal, dangerous mirrors, and vampires. You never really get to the bottom of the characters who make the narrative tick; they’re surface, trading witty repartee and dangerous allusions and making intuitive links. That’s not to say they’re superficial – I don’t think they are – but Smith doesn’t really show us what makes even Thane tick, let alone his partner Mal or his crime-partner Genetta or any of the other odd bods who rock up. And I don’t think this is an oversight on Smith’s part; I think it’s quite deliberate. She seems more interested in the glitz and suggestive shadows than in deep psychological questions. So if you’re up for something light-hearted and fast-paced and quirky – definitely quirky – in the urban fantasy vein, this is your thing.
I first read this book in manuscript form, because Kate is a long-time (I could hear the objections over the water and out of the future when I considered writing “old”) friend of mine. When it got published – last year! – Kate sent me a copy with the inscription “at last” – and at last I have got around to reading it. Of course, I remembered the awesome denouement, which meant I didn’t get the same thrill as I did the first time through; nonetheless it was still a wild ride.
One of Kate’s great talents is an ear for odd, rhythmical, and charming description. She links together sometimes outrageous words to compose a scene, drawing in visuals and sounds and even scents to bring together a very real, if whimsical scene: “colder rays and tentacles of witch light fountained, splashing in an ever-widening search pattern over spines and shelves, turning the cobwebs infra-blue…” (34). She also has a habit of incorporating music and lyrics into her stories, sometimes making connections that seem quite peculiar unless you’re able to follow the devious turnings of her brain and keep up with the pop culture references.
As to plot – it’s urban fantasy, I guess? The chief characters are Josh, who appears to have no memories older than a few months; his new employer, Scarlet, a Nichtthane – someone responsible for keeping the bogeymen away from humanity; and Kelly, Scarlet’s seneschal, largely responsible for keeping Scarlet herself away from humanity, at least until she’s appropriately caffeinated. There’s a lot of banter and discussion of shoes in between dealing with vampires, were-creatures, and other, less immediately recognisable, supernatural critters. The common thread through it all, at least in theory, is Josh and his past; actually though I think Scarlet and Kelly’s relationship is the more interesting, as Scarlet continues to deal with being nearly immortal and Kelly shows that although intensely loyal, he doesn’t belong to Scarlet – there’s a wider world requiring attention. These stories were initially written as short stories, and sometimes it feels like it. Overall, though, they do hang together nicely.
I was also amused, of course, to recognise two of my very own connections to Kate within these pages: a vampire with a tshirt reading “it’s all liminal to me” – liminal being my very favourite word and one I’ve made Kate roll her eyes over too many times to count; and another character wearing a tshirt reading “Dear Pluto, no matter what they say you’ll always be a planet to me” – a tshirt that I own, courtesy of the author. Does this mean that I have been Tuckerised??
This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013!
You can buy What Night Hides at Fishpond.