A shadowy blue rose set against a black background with blue symbols and tendrils surrounding it. Text: "The end is only the beginning. Smoke and Key. Kelsey Sutton." The Y in the word "Key" is stylized to look like a key.

Young Adult Book Review: Smoke and Key by Kelsey Sutton


Synopsis

A sound awakens her. There’s darkness all around. And then she’s falling…

She has no idea who or where she is. Or why she’s dead. The only clue to her identity hangs around her neck: a single rusted key. This is how she and the others receive their names ― from whatever belongings they had when they fell out of their graves. Under is a place of dirt and secrets, and Key is determined to discover the truth of her past in order to escape it.

She needs help, but who can she trust? Ribbon seems content in Under, uninterested in finding answers. Doll’s silence hints at deep sorrow, which could be why she doesn’t utter a word. There’s Smoke, the boy with a fierceness that rivals even the living. And Journal, who stays apart from everyone else. Key’s instincts tell her there is something remarkable about each of them, even if she can’t remember why.

Then the murders start. Bodies that are burned to a crisp. And after being burned, the dead stay dead. Key is running out of time to discover who she was ― and what secret someone is willing to kill to keep hidden ― before she loses her life for good…


Details

  • Title: Smoke and Key
  • Author: Kelsey Sutton
  • Cover Artists: saemilee/Getty Images and kuschelirmel.deviantart.com, images; Stefanie Saw and Bree Archer, design
  • Publisher: Entangled: Teen
  • ISBN: 1640636005
  • Publication Date: April 2, 2019
  • For Ages: 14+
  • Category: Young Adult
  • Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? 😿 Spooky-Sad.
  • Content Warnings: Self-harm, child abuse

I’d like to thank Entangled: Teen for providing an advance copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Note: There are sex scenes in this book. I’m not including this note because I think sex is dirty or that teens shouldn’t read about it if they want to, but because I know that some kids (and sex-repulsed ace folks of all ages) do not want to read about sex. This is a heads-up for y’all — stay safe.


Review

Filled with grief, love, betrayal, and dark magic, Smoke and Key is an intriguing mixture of genres, gliding effortlessly between mystery, romance, horror, and tragedy. The title refers to the two main characters who are named after the objects they were buried with after they died: Smoke, a young man who was buried with a cigar, and Key, a young woman who was buried with a key on a chain around her neck. The story begins as Key wakes up in her casket and falls through the ground to find herself in Under, a place below the cemetery where the living dead have built a community for themselves. They don’t know who they were in life or why they are stuck in Under, but they are resigned to their fate. Key, on the other hand, is determined to find answers and a way out of Under no matter what it may cost her.

The mysteries of Under and Key’s true identity are riveting though there were a few moments where the pacing lagged a bit, author Kelsey Sutton had me on the edge of my seat through most of the book, desperate to find out what was keeping these people alive after death and how they were all connected to one another. Sutton slowly spools out clues in the form of memories that catch Key unawares, since no one in Under is supposed to be able to remember anything from their days among the living. It’s a plot device that could come across as contrived, but it feels natural and organic within the story. Sutton doesn’t use the memories as mere vehicles for exposition; in fact, Key’s memories are where the richest character development lies and where some of the cruelest dramatic irony stems from, as the reader learns things that the other residents of Under may never remember about their own lives. This can be a heartbreaking read, but I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. As the pieces fell into place during the climax, the answers I had been waiting for managed to surprise me while also feeling inevitable and wholly satisfying.

Key is an engaging heroine. As we learn more about her life before Under, it becomes clear that she was torn between wanting the approval of her loved ones and wanting to live her life free of their expectations and the constraints of propriety and decorum. Though there isn’t much diversity in the book (the setting is a small English village around the turn of the 20th century, and all the characters seem to be default white and allocishet), I think that a lot of kids, especially girls, will relate to Key’s internal struggle. The strength and determination underlying her defiance serve her well as she works to solve the mystery of Under.

Smoke and Key is a unique, affecting story that raises questions about memory, morality, identity, and the afterlife. Its central romance sweeps you off your feet and makes you believe in true love, while its horror elements bring you back down to earth among the consequences of dark magic and the evils of human nature. Ultimately, though, it is a story of redemption: Key learns to forgive others and to forgive herself, and perhaps most importantly she learns that there are some things she never needed to be forgiven for in the first place.


Rating

You might need some tissues handy at the end. I give this book 4 out of 5 coffins.

4 Coffins


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