Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long is a high fantasy novel, originally published in 2021 and is the author’s debut novel with a current average rating of 3.83 on Goodreads, and is the first in a trilogy of the same name. I have chosen to rate this book 4 stars.
Hall of Smoke follows Hessa, a hghest priestess of Eang, the Goddess of War. Forsaken by her goddess after failing to complete one of her tasks, Hessa is an outcast to her village and religion when a raid takes place that destroys her entire home and people.
Desperate to seek redemption from her goddess, and revenge for her people, Hessa embarks on a journey to win back favour and discover who caused the deaths of everyone she’s ever known.
But there are powerful forces at play as the High Halls of the Gods are embroiled in a battle of their own, and soon Hessa must face her own crisis of faith as the terrible truths revealed weaken her trust in her goddess.
I haven’t seen many people talking about this book, but I have seen it floating around on Twitter a couple of times, so when I saw my library had an ebook copy of this I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.
This was a slog at first, the world-building here is difficult due to the system of faith explored through different characters and settings, plus there is a lot to learn as the protagonist knows basically nothing so you have to learn with her. However, the story is incredibly compelling and there was a number of interesting characters to meet also.
The world building in this is incredibly rich and fascinating, I always wanted to know more about the gods and their lores and faith. Interestingly, this was a book where the gods felt real also, I could imagine them having a direct impact on ordinary individual’s lives and stories, instead of some far away nameless, faceless and ultimately unimportant entity. Plus, it was nice to see a lot of it due to the nature of the story being largely based around travel.
Hessa, our protagonist, is genuinely complex and at times difficult to like, but understandably so. She loses everything in one fell sweep: her home, her people and her place in the world as she becomes the sole survivor of what is essentially a religiously motivated genocide; and the author doesn’t shy away from the realities of this. Hessa is our only main character, and she’s largely alone for most of the story, and the people she does encounter stay as side characters for most of the book due to this. She also goes on a fantastic character arc, and the transformation she endures is captivating.
However, that is not say our other side characters are not also interesting. Whilst this may turn some readers off, the side characters in this are also very complex and hugely interesting from a zealous priest of a different god desperate to convert everyone he meets, to a retired soldier who looks back on his past with both horror but also nostalgia, and gods who are elusive and tricky. They all stay as side characters, which was fine for me, but for other readers may have been frustrating if they wanted to see more of them.
I really enjoyed the fact this was action-packed, and the fighting was brilliantly written. I felt very much like I was part of it and could see it for myself. There were also consequences present when characters lost, which is always nice to see, and Hessa did learn from each encounter and went forward to apply that without becoming this invulnerable all-winning machine, which is sometimes a problem in the fantasy genre.
The book is unfortunately let down by its pacing and sometimes structure, if it wasn’t for these problems, it would easily be a five-star read. The first 100 pages of this are difficult to get through with the amount of world-building to fit in between scenes of high-emotional stakes, which don’t hit as hard as they should because we don’t know the characters well enough for it to hurt yet. However, I devoured the rest of the book, eager to know what was going to happen yet, and the emotional stakes for me, at least, were high after the initial parts.
Overall, if you are a fan of high fantasy and gods, and you’re looking for your next series – this could be for you.