Hall of Smoke
by H. M. Long
432pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.56/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.88/5

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Hall of Smoke, H. M. Long’s Viking-inspired epic fantasy debut novel, follows a priestess of the Goddess of War as she tries to set things right after having failed her deity—and discovers there’s far more to her world and its pantheon than she’s been taught when she becomes entangled in a war between the gods of the Old and New Worlds.

Hessa was only a child when she learned she was destined to serve Eang, Goddess of War. During her fifth year, she killed two raiders attacking her family, though she did not not understand how she did so and could only remember the feeling of heat in her blood and mouth afterward. Later, Hessa was told she was one of those who possessed the goddess’ Fire, hot magic with a variety of purposes including slaying one’s enemies, healing oneself, and writing runes. She and a cousin with the same gift were sent to the Hall of Smoke, where the High Priestess trained them to wield their power.

The main story begins several years later with Hessa begging her goddess to spare her life. A few years before, Eang had tasked her with killing a man who would come to the Hall of Smoke, but on the day he arrived, Hessa welcomed him as a guest before she realized who he was—and could not bring herself to break Hearth Law and murder the kindly visitor when she realized he was the one she’d been commanded to kill. After being stripped of her priestess collar and banished from the Hall for her disobedience, Hessa went to a shrine to plead with her goddess for mercy. But she received no answer and as she continued to await one, attackers descended on the Hall and killed nearly everyone there, including her husband and the cousin she had grown up with—leaving Hessa as one of the last with Eang’s power, even though she’s no longer technically a priestess.

Hessa blames herself for the massacre, fearing that the timing is not coincidental and it would not have happened if she had just slain the visitor as her goddess willed. She determines to find the traveler she let live and complete her goddess-given task, hoping that she’ll then be forgiven and reunited with her husband in the High Halls one day.

But Hessa’s quest leads her to question much of what she thought she knew to be true about the gods and their history, and she begins to wonder how much faith she should have in Eang, a goddess who wants a man dead for reasons she will not reveal—a goddess who failed to protect her people and seems to be growing weaker.

H. M. Long tells a great story narrated from Hessa’s first-person perspective in Hall of Smoke, and I especially appreciated how it felt different despite having a lot of familiar elements. The various cultures and gods with rather human flaws and emotions could be interesting with their mysterious motivations, but other than Hessa’s goddess, they did not seem especially unique or fleshed out. Yet, Hessa’s tale of survival and discovery wandered down unexpected paths, and the execution of her story felt refreshingly different to me for a combination of reasons.

In part, I think that’s because death and destruction are treated seriously in Hall of Smoke. The book’s description calls Hessa a “battle-hardened priestess of the Goddess of War,” and though she certainly has fought and killed—and fights and kills in this novel, which does indeed have violence—she’s not the type of wisecracking, “edgy” protagonist with a penchant for dark humor that has become rather common. Sure, she can be hot tempered and quick to summon her magic at times, especially when near people she doesn’t trust, but she also tries to reign that in when she realizes what she’s doing (as long as she’s not actually in battle at the time). She and her people are shown to be protectors rather than aggressors, and Hessa doesn’t revel in dealing death: after all, her entire journey stems from her decision to disobey her goddess’ command and let someone live. Hessa was taken aback by the fact that the man she was told she was destined to kill was not an obvious bad guy who murdered children or some such thing, but instead seemed to be the amiable sort of person she thought was all too rare in the world—and she could not understand why her goddess would want him dead or bring herself to end the life of someone who seemed unusually kind.

She does later curse herself for what she sees as her weakness, thinking that he must have sent the horde that massacred her people and that they’d still be alive if she’d just done as she’d been told. But despite that and the book’s description mentioning her path towards revenge, I didn’t think Hessa seemed particularly vengeful, even after she decided she needed to do what her goddess commanded. The path toward redemption also mentioned seems more applicable: she wanted forgiveness from her goddess and the knowledge that she would be reunited with her loved ones after her own death more than anything. And perhaps it’s because she’s not consumed by a desire for revenge that she’s able to evaluate new information in the course of her travels and be (somewhat) open to realizing things may be more complicated than she’d thought. Though she is reluctant to let go of what she’s always believed, she’s also not so stubbornly set in her ways that she can’t reconsider and adapt her views when presented with new knowledge that she can’t deny to be truth.

Of course, that by itself doesn’t make this novel unique, and I don’t think I can adequately put into words all the factors that went into making Hessa’s story seem atypical to me. Her journey felt natural with its combination of her being swept into events bigger than her but also making some choices that had an impact, and it didn’t follow a pattern of her running into the same obstacles over and over again, constantly being in situations designed to showcase certain character traits: she just took things in stride and kept persevering. Hall of Smoke is very focused on Hessa and other characters come and go without getting a chance to know them well, yet she doesn’t do everything on her own and still has attachments and forms new ones—particularly with a friend who survived the massacre, whose newborn son Hessa vows to protect, and a man she meets in her travels, who remains a platonic friend without any hint of romance.

And that is a large part of why I liked but did not love Hall of Smoke: that relationships between characters were not explored in depth. My favorite part of reading tends to be learning about the characters through their interactions and various relationships with others, and even the friendships that were most central to this novel didn’t seem especially developed. Hessa obviously cared about those closest to her and would go to great lengths to help them, but I did feel like I was told more about her bonds with others than I saw them come to life on the page.

There were also parts of the novel that I found rather dull, especially during the first half. I really enjoyed the earlier chapters that focused on the more immediate aftermath of Hessa’s disobedience and how she came to be a priestess, as well as her run-ins with Eang’s mysterious, flirtatious son who believes he is a godly gift to women (not just because he is supernaturally beautiful but because he can provide them with children with a decent chance of being immortal, and parenting is so much less worrisome with an immortal child). But aside from those parts, there were stretches throughout the first half that were too heavy on traveling, meeting a lot of new people, and introducing a lot of different names of gods to be compelling to me, although I did like the parts that involved Hessa’s goddess and were more personal to her. That said, I did find the second part of the novel solidly engaging even though it had some of the same features, and I think that’s because later parts did seem more personal for Hessa, rather than merely expanding the scope of the world and revealing new information about it.

Hall of Smoke didn’t stand out to me as a must-read novel since it didn’t always keep me riveted, but I did appreciate the unpredictability of Hessa’s story—and the storytelling in this debut was strong enough that I am a bit curious about what will happen in the standalone sequel set 10 years later, Temple of No God, which is scheduled for release in January 2022.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Hall of Smoke

Read H. M. Long’s Women in SF&F Month 2021 Guest Post, “Creativity in Crisis”