Smoketown is a science fiction novel by Tenea D. Johnson. A Kentucky native, Johnson named the story after Louisville’s Smoketown, a historically African American neighborhood that housed a “large number of (smoke-producing) kilns.” Johnson retains the history of the people and place in her novel and transforms the futuristic Smoketown into a bustling district in the large city-state of Leiodare.
Climate change has altered the landscapes of the United States, converting Kentucky into lush, tropical lands. Twenty-five years prior to the story opening, a widespread avian virus called The Crumble exterminated several animal species and a fourth of humans. As a result, Leiodarans banned all birds.
Smoketown is told from the vantage points of three characters, including Anna Amour (the main character) and Dr. Eugenio Olievera. In Anna’s adolescence, she was struck by tragedy and grief, which unfolded a series of events that led to her current predicament. She’s alone in Leiodare and trying to locate her long-lost lover and friend, Peru, by the distinctions in virtu reals. A single corporation has revolutionized virtual technology and sparked a culture of virtu. A virtuoso makes virtu reals for a living, and some virtuosos risks their lives and livelihood for money and notoriety. Anna was a virtuoso along with Peru.
Eugenio is a medical anthropologist in the city’s Emergency Management Division, but he’s functioning as an entomologist. Due to the bird ban, Leiodarans are constantly grappling with overpopulated insect species, and some of these insects have evolved into superbugs. Eugiono is a member of Mendejano, a religious sect that reveres birds and believes there’s a way to fix anything. Therefore, Eugiono wants to unearth the real story behind The Crumble while simultaneously fixing the pest control problem.
The POV characters are strangers until their individual quests cross or influence the other’s actions. Smoketown has all the ingredients of good speculative fiction, from mind-blowing technology to semi-sinister customs. Johnson does a great job with world building and infusing interesting futuristic elements, particularly the role of virtu in Leiodare and Anna’s amazing gift. In this Leiodaran world, the author explores how people react to a plague and their changed physical and virtual worlds, as well as the relevancy of non-human species.
The novel is replete with detail, so I expected more of it to be devoted to Anna. The author provides pockets of Anna’s backstory, but I didn’t learn much about Anna as an adult woman. Although Anna played a pivotal role in a major plot event, she was primarily on standby. As a result, she felt inconsequential to many parts of the story.
Smoketown mixes big industry and conspiracy with hints of spirituality, sexuality, and fantasy to form a layered mystery. If you want a story with big action, the pacing of this novel won’t do it for you. But patient readers who enjoy depth to prose and storytelling may find Smoketown a satisfying read.
Reviewed by: Lauren Cherelle
Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, The Dawn of Nia (Resolute Publishing, 2016). Outside of reading and writing, she enjoys new adventures with her partner of fourteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, lcherelle.com, and Goodreads