Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


Emile works as a graphic designer, but his passion is traveling full time. His current goal is to see all seven wonders of the natural world. This has led Emile to journey to Zambia in Africa. He arrives late at night, and has arranged to be picked up by Thato, someone from the hostel. Emile can’t help but admire how attractive Theto is and wonders if there might be an opportunity to make a brief connection with someone. Surprisingly, Thato himself makes the first overtures of friendship toward Emile under the guise of helping a tourist plan his trip. Slowly, these two discover how much their life goals complement one another and find more ways of spending time in each other’s company. During this process, Emile begins to realize that solo travel may fulfill the mind, but it doesn’t fulfill the heart and soul quite like Thato does.

Growing up in an orphanage did not provide Thato with many life skills. Nevertheless, he took every opportunity to interact with tourists who would visit his orphanage. Through them, he learned several languages and developed a longing to see the world. Those weekly visits proved very formative for Thato. In lieu of a formal education, his ad hoc knowledge of languages and thirst for knowledge allowed him to secure a job at Jollyboys hostel several years later. He’s already gone further in life than he ever expected and Thato is sure things are as good as they will get. Then he meets Emile.

Inexperienced and well aware of the laws against LGBT people in Zambia, Thato isn’t sure how to even begin a friendship with Emile…let alone anything more personal. Yet there is something definitely telling in the way Emile interacts with Thato. It doesn’t take long for both men to recognize their mutual attraction. As Thato slowly learns to open his heart to another man, he also begins to learn what physical desire and sexual intimacy is with Emile. As the days turn into weeks, Thato and Emile grow closer together. Yet the more time they spend together, the more they become aware of how Emile is a temporary visitor. The new lovers must reconcile Emile’s transient living situation with new and powerfully appealing ideas about a future neither one knew they wanted, but are now loath to give up.

Under the Smoke and Thunder is a contemporary get-together and is part of the Love Abroad multi-author collection. Starring an American tourist and a Zambian hostel worker, the book offers a look at international and interracial relationships. Overall, this is a fairly sweet get together. Both Emile and Thato go through tremendous journeys of self-discovery. Once they acknowledge their feelings for each other, we slide into a sure-thing slow burn—that is, one where they both know what they want, but slowly warm up to physical intimacy given an accident Emile suffers and Thato’s zero past experience. There are some hiccups in cultural understanding, but those are (for the most part) well intentioned and, in general, it seems like these two characters really balance each other out.

Thato came across as such a well-intentioned, content person. Over the course of the story, I got the impression that just living independently and having a job meant he’d already achieved more than he had expected he would. It was sweet to watch him experience all the confusion, hope, anxiety, and elation of finding a crush and discovering that they like you, too. So much of his life seemed shaped by his experience as an orphan and much of what he does in the story (well, that’s not related to his burgeoning feelings for Emile) ties into his past and his desire to make sure other orphans have at least as much of a shot at making it as he did. 

I feel like Emile really represents an average white American with the best of intentions. He’s been all over the world and it’s his life’s purpose to see and experience new cultures. Most of the activities Emile engages in feel pretty touristy, but they’re also great vehicles to get Emile and Thato together in public—a way to date in a country that has outlawed being gay. The best example of Emile getting into the local culture is an evening where the hostel guests are taken to a local market to shop for the ingredients they’ll need to cook their own dinners. I liked that this showed a more intimate view not just of our two MCs, but of the setting as well. But there were some signs of Emile still being something of an insufferable tourist, too. They way he immediately lands on just buying the local orphanage whatever they need—and using his social media clout to help—was kind of crass. Thankfully, Thato helps explain why Emile’s good intentions are good, but far from truly helpful.

There were two specific scenes where I was sort of stunned at Emile’s ignorance, and they both drive major arcs in the plot. The first was when Emile, apparently a competent whitewater rafter up to a level 3 rapids, decides to go on a trip to level 5 rapids. He gets very hurt and that fact, along with the aftermath of the accident, are huge drivers for development in his relationship with Thato. I’m glad these two had an excuse to get so cozy, but it seemed like a ridiculous way to get this world traveler to become the center of Thato’s attention. I couldn’t understand how this man who’s basically made it his life’s mission to have no permanent home address because he travels so much would pull that whitewater rafting stunt. The other issue was how Emile comments very early on about how he uses his social media presence to help other LGBTQ travelers know what to expect when traveling, what’s safe, what to avoid. Yet when Emile and Thato start going on excursions together, complete with endless PDA and sneaking kisses and all that, it seemed like it never crossed Emile’s mind that their acts may lead to legal ramifications. It took Thato having a close call for Emile to remember this and Emile gives Thato a lengthy spiel about “don’t let it affect you.” I understand the sentiment here, but your Zambian boyfriend could be thrown in jail and Emile as a tourist is still responsible for following local laws or suffering local punishments. On the plus side (I guess), the whole thing mostly ends up as a nothing burger, but I spent whole chapters sweating each new excursion these two took together.

Under the Smoke and Thunder is a fun, sweet story that dives deep into a romance that blooms between two men with deeply different cultural heritages. Despite the story’s brevity, I thought Emile and Thato were wonderfully detailed. Thato has a particularly rich background, much of which the reader gets to learn about as Thato opens up to Emile. I didn’t think Emile was as deeply described and had a few faults for being such a well-traveled individual, but most of that melts away when he falls for Thato. If you’re into stories that play off “opposite side of the tracks” themes, BIPOC main characters, international relationships, or stories set outside the West/northern hemisphere, I think you’ll find this a rather sweet take on a tale as old as time.

Joyfully Jay