Overall Grade: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Tropes: MC romance; opposites attract; romantic suspense
“You could wallow in the hurts done to you and use them as an excuse to live your life hurting other people. Or you could fight the cycle and find ways to do better.”
For almost two years now, I’ve been trying to understand the magic of Kristen Ashley’s storytelling. I thought it was due to her capacity to write meaty stories, detail after detail poured over her pages. I’ve also considered her gift at drawing characters you love from their first moment on the page. You love them; you hate them; you love them again. Maybe it’s crazy, out-of-control women or emotionally stunted, alpha males; it doesn’t matter because you can’t help but love them all. It’s even possible that it’s her engaging plotlines that hold you captive. I do believe it has to do with the communities she carefully crafts into her stories. But, after reading Smoke and Steel, her newest book, I started pondering it, and I realized that the thing I love the most about a story such as Smoke and Steel and the menagerie of other stories she’s written is the way that her stories are like our memories: nuggets of moments that comprehensively embody a life. That’s the gold, I think, of her romances. Stephen King wrote a book entitled On Writing, and the first part is called “CV”. It’s vignettes of moments in his life that forged his writerly identity. In many ways, Kristen Ashley’s stories are the same: vignettes of moments in her characters’ lives that make up the totality of their story. It’s comprehensive and weighty. It allows her to weave different messages into her books. In Smoke and Steel, she interrogates the dangers of dating sites, weaponized incompetence in relationships, the generational trauma of abuse and its impact, impetuous choices, the consequences, and the need for self-forgiveness, and societal expectations about relationships and marriage. All of these points reside in one book, woven through tethered moments in the lives of her characters. And it makes it difficult to leave her books because you want more moments with them, more opportunities to get lost in their existence in the pages of a book.
For me, I picked up Smoke and Steel expecting a journey, as I always do with Ashley’s books. Since she gives so much in her stories, I’m used to needing a few days to finish them. That was not the case with Smoke and Steel. I picked it up and read it in a day and a half. I only stopped reading it for my job, but Hellen and Core were impossible to leave.
Let’s make connections. We’ve met both of these characters previously. Hellen is the half-sister of Archie, who is married to Jagger from Wild Wind, part of the Chaos series. Core is a member of the Resurrection MC. This is the MC born out of the now-defunct Bounty. We met him in Free. He and his MC still live in the shadows of their poor choice from that book.
Everything you love about Ashley’s Chaos series and her book from the Wild West MC series, Still Standing, is found in Smoke and Steel. If you’re like me and you love her gruff, delectable alpha male with a broken spirit, then you’ll fall in love with Core. He is a complex rendering, carrying two great marks of trauma in his soul, and he hides it behind an implacable wall. It’s Hellen, an independent, knows her mind and makes no excuses for it heroine, who “sees” him when she finally knows his secrets. This is my favorite romance theme: the idea that there is one person on this planet who accepts us as we are because they can rationalize our “why”. I love Hellen because she asks for what she needs, and she doesn’t make excuses for it. She doesn’t explain it away even when her “friend” criticizes her for not eating the sh*t of past men. There is so much on social media focused on the idea of men and weaponized incompetence, a loaded term. But Kristen Ashley highlights it in such a way to say, “women, don’t settle for anything less than you need and want.” And Hellen embodies this idea beautifully. It’s a heroine like Hellen that we need to read more of and view more on our screens. It’s because of her strong sense of self that she can and wants to accept Core and his past beyond any measure.
In the end, Kristen Ashley’s Smoke and Steel is pure divinity. Her capacity to remind us that there is more to people, more than what we see on the outside, that we are a culmination of our moments but that we shouldn’t be judged by just one of them is profound. It’s why I will continue to devour her books because they mirror life while also shading them in the positivity and happy endings of the romance genre. To see one’s self reflected in a story, but made stronger through the power of fiction, that’s the genius of Kristen Ashley’s books.
In love and romance,