Inventor and businessman Angus McClaren is used to getting what he wants. And he wants artist Crispin Reid. After clawing his way out of poverty, Angus has acquired a reputation for his cold and calculating acumen. But his desire for Crispin has him doing so many things that are out of character. Like traveling to the seaside town of Galveston, Texas to conduct paranormal experiments with Crispin and his fiancé, Tally Munro.
Crispin and Tally have cultivated a relationship that suits their unique personalities and needs. Meeting Angus offers an interesting potential addition to their union, but not before a mystery must be solved. The dead plague Tally and her ability to speak with them is both a blessing and curse. In Galveston, the site of one of the worst natural disasters in history, Tally finds herself besieged by an especially angry and dangerous spirit. Angus and Crispin must find a way to keep her safe as Tally confronts those beyond the veil. Only when the dead rest will they have a chance to explore the emotions simmering between them.
Smoke and Dreams is something of a challenge. It has much to recommend, it but a near equal amount to detract from it. There were times I found reading it to be maddening because the writing would strike a cord on one page and then utterly turn me off at the next. So let’s start with the positives.
Crispin says “We are building a Crispin and Tally shaped marriage. It isn’t going to look like anybody else’s because nobody else is like us.” This perfectly sums up their unique relationship. They’ve embraced their desire and need for kink and don’t bother caring what society thinks. And while it isn’t really period appropriate (the story takes place in 1908), it is refreshing. Tally is a strong, credible character who balances her role as medium with her needs as a woman and she’s really the core that holds our trio together. Angus and Crispin are interesting, but both characters needed more fleshing out. The paranormal aspect is fairly compelling and the author does a good job conveying the desperation and terror of the dead, trapped in this world and too confused to move to the next.
Given that Smoke and Dreams is set in Galveston just a few years after a massive hurricane and sea surge killed somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people, I felt like Galveston should have played a bigger part in the story. There is mention of the hurricane, of course, and Tally is surrounded by the dead of that storm, but there is no greater exploration of either the event or the city. As a result, the sense of time and place felt disconnected and adrift.
Angus is a misogynist and a full on a-hole. He views women as objects to be used for his sexual pleasure, but not worth the trouble of dealing with further. I suppose you could consider this an issue of the time period, but so little about this book adheres to historical structure, that Angus just comes off as a jerk. He comes to appreciate Tally, but there isn’t any suggestion that he’s come to respect women as a whole by the end of the book. It makes him an extremely difficult character to connect with, especially as a female reviewer. Another issue are the sex scenes between Crispin and Tally and their ménage with Angus. These moments are awkward and uncomfortable to read. There’s no passion. Instead they read as poorly choreographed exchanges that fail to achieve a sense of reality. The kink is there, both S&M and Daddy, but it’s minimal at best and feels tossed into the mix almost as an afterthought. This book is considered steampunk, but there are almost no steampunk elements to speak of and it is almost farcical to place it in that category.
Storm and Dreams has an interesting plot and engaging characters, especially Tally who serves as glue to the ménage between her, Crispin, and Angus. But the book suffers from a distorted sense of time and place, as well as a disagreeable main character in Angus and erotic moments that are anything but. As a whole the potential is there, but the story desperately needed restructuring. If you love paranormal romances, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here, but for everyone else, Smoke and Dreams is probably going to be a miss.