The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows is brief, shocking, and action-packed. An intense reading experience that feels like a vicious jab in the throat and left me wanting more.
These are strange times. The news often feels crazier than anything any fiction writer could ever come up with. But for many, yours truly included, fiction still offers a welcome escape into weird and wonderful worlds. Reading is an opportunity to travel in your mind when physical travel is not possible, to meet people that do not even really exist, and to be enthralled by their adventures. This is hardly an original statement, and I’m hardly the first to make it, but its truth is confirmed for me and many others every single day.
So. The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows is a case in point. Although it can be read as a stand-alone novella, Todd Sullivan’s new book benefits from being read as a successor to Butchers. I had the pleasure of reviewing Butchers earlier this year and, finishing my review by expressing my hope of more fictional carnage to come, I was well pleased to find the second instalment of the series on my doorstep. Just like its predecessor it promised violence, gore, and mayhem set in the urban jungle of Seoul. And just like its predecessor it did not disappoint.
As The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows is a sequel its setting will be familiar to readers who have read Butchers. The novella’s events revolve around the Gwanlyo, a mysterious organisation that keeps vampires in check. Vampires are among us, you see, and they look just like us. But because they have supernatural powers, including an impressive ability to heal their injured bodies, combined with a voracious appetite for human blood, they can’t be allowed to roam free as they please.
I was glad to see a return of Hyeri, a particularly vicious vampire whose actions scare even senior Gwanlyo members. The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows introduces Sa-Hak, her sadistic grandfather who has an unhealthy interest in young girls. Not only does this add depth to Hyeri’s killer persona, it also sets off a string of almost cinematic and ever more violent events. I’m not going to discuss the storyline in any depth here as it revolves around mystery, shock, and surprise. And having had so much fun with this book myself, why would I want to spoil the fun for others?
More so than Butchers, The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows sits in between horror and fantasy, at least for me. While there’s more than enough action and gore to keep horror fans happy, I particularly enjoyed the introduction of new characters such as a partial golem with a flesh torso and stone limbs. Or a mysterious character called The Advocate, who is surrounded by an aura of violence, even if we never actually see him hurting anyone. Seeing these characters being meticulously introduced and then let loose to make their mark on an already fascinating fictional world is a real pleasure.
Just like its predecessor, The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows is brief, shocking, and action-packed. The novella asks many questions and answers very few. There’s no fluff and no filler. It makes for an intense reading experience that feels like a vicious jab in the throat. And as unpleasant as that may sound, I was still left wanting more.
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Cover art and design by L.A. Spooner