Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1) by Django Wexler

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The Shadow Campaigns series ranks among some of my favorite military fantasies – so I was excited when I heard this author was writing a new series.

Isoka has the ability to access magic, and she’s used it for her own benefit all her life, caring little to nothing for other people. The one exception to that would be her younger sister, who she has worked very hard to give a normal life and protect her from the dangers of her ‘career’ choice. Magic isn’t necessarily forbidden in this world, but you have to be sanctioned and tracked by the government. Rogue magic users are hunted down, especially if they start messing with royal business.

Isoka had thought she was flying under the radar of the officials until she finds herself cornered by the authorities and forced to go on a mission for them. There’s a ghost ship that comes around every so often to collect an offering of magic users. Usually the cities give up unlicensed mages, but even that is starting to irk them because they could otherwise be used for the governments breeding programs…. So they force Isoka into a mission to take over the ghost ship and return it back to them…. or they will kill her sister – the one person she actually cares about.

I found Isoka a very difficult character to root for or relate to in many ways. She’s a cold blooded killer that will kill her own friends or lovers if she thinks they could be a liability to her. She doesn’t mourn the deaths of those around her, even if she’s known them for a while. She considers a quick death for innocent people who got in her way to be a type of mercy. Her arc takes her from one extreme to another where she learns to care about other people and become a leader/hero of sorts. The problem is the change was a little too sudden and too extreme from one end of the spectrum to the other. I didn’t totally invest in it because it just didn’t feel quite right to me.

The magic system in this world is fairly extensive and I really enjoyed learning all the different ways magic can be used, and what’s possible and what’s not. Magic users come in three basic “levels” of power: Touched > Talented > Adept. There are 16 “wells” of magic people can draw from, and each of the wells can give the wielder different powers. Sometimes people can draw from multiple wells, and some wells are much more common than others. The one forbidden well is called the Ghoul Well, it can allow the user to transform shape, heal… but also add appendages where there shouldn’t be any. This particular kind of magic user is feared and executed, where most are just controlled and monitored.

The world outside of the magic system was also very cool, the ship she gets assigned to is hundreds of feet high and the volume makes it the same size as a city. There are floors upon floors and most people haven’t traversed the full ship bow to stern. The ship is also full of dangers because there are elephant sized crabs that hunt humans. The mushrooms growing all over the ship gave it an eerie rotting feeling that went well with the tone of the book.

The writing was great as I was expecting it to be, the prose Django Wexler creates is always top notch IMHO. The pacing was okay, there were parts that went by really quickly and others that dragged just slightly, but overall I didn’t find myself bored and wanting to put it down – there was always something interesting happening. This was also an incredibly original feeling book, I can’t remember reading anything quite like it. One of my bigger problems is that I kept predicting what was going to happen which took the excitement out of what were supposed to be dramatic scenes or big reveals. It ended up bringing down the score a little bit, but I wouldn’t say I disliked the book, I just didn’t engage with it as much as I did with the last series.

Overall I would still recommend this, especially for those who enjoy greyer/darker main characters, pirate ship adventures, and surreal landscapes. I think I just wasn’t the right audience in some respects, especially in regards to the romance.

TLDR Snapshot:

  • Tropes: Assassin, pirate ships, tyrannical government/forbidden magic
  • Tags: LGBT (f/f), monsters, medium magic system, ghosts
  • Genre: grimdark


  • Plot: 11/15
  • Characters: 9/15
  • World Building: 13/15
  • Writing: 12/15
  • Pacing: 11/15
  • Originality: 13/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 6/10

Final Score: 75/100 or 3.7/5 on Goodreads