If you read my reviews regularly (HI MOM!), then you know I’m a huge, HUGE fan of Douglas Wynne’s SPECTRA Files novel series. There are plenty modern of Lovecraftian horror writers out there, but Wynne is one of the few who manages to weave the required existential dread into a physical/visceral threat, all without betraying the source material’s cosmic sensibilities. Combine that with incredible character work and great dialogue, and it sometimes felt like the SPECTRA books were written specifically written for my enjoyment.
As you might imagine, I was all types of excited to learn that Wynne was crafting a new prequel novella to the series entitled Smoke & Dagger. Due to be released on August 20, the story follows Catherine Littlefield’s journey from anthropology student to infiltrating secret arcane societies.
If you’re already familiar with the SPECTRA Files series, then you know that Catherine is the grandmother of its main protagonist, Becca Philips. While Catherine’s presence has always been a major part of the main books, she is front and center this time, embarking on a post World War II tale of government subterfuge, arcane rituals, and eldritch horror.
Before diving into this review, I should disclose that I had a hand in helping to edit Smoke & Dagger as an early beta reader. Also, Douglas Wynne is a friend and not-so-secret authorial mancrush of mine. That being said, I’m not about to go easy one someone who I expect great stories from. Let’s dive in and see if Wynne was able to conjure another great Lovecraftian horror story for us, shall we?
First and foremost, Wynne’s knack for creating compelling characters is firing on all cylinders. When Catherine gets recruited into a secret society claiming to defend our realm from the Old Gods, she is as bewildered and skeptical as anyone would be. Thankfully, Wynne frames her recruitment (and eventual agreement to join) as a decision fueled not just by unquenchable curiosity, but a terrifying necessity to do what’s right.
In addition to the characters Wynne makes up, Jack Parsons (he of rocket fuel expertise and occult obsession) is utilized in ways that are both shocking and (surprisingly) believable. It’s clear from the first time we “meet” this historical figure that his well known intellect is eclipsed by a deadly fascination with dark forces beyond human control or comprehension.
Smoke & Dagger also provides us with another great perspective in the form of LeBlanc and Whittaker, two agents of SPEAR (a predecessor to SPECTRA) who are keeping tabs on Parson’s bizarre activities. Once Catherine’s mission becomes intertwined with theirs, things really kick into high gear. It takes a little while, though. Smoke & Dagger is definitely a slow burn, but one filled with enough intrigue and dread to keep the pages turning and an extra light on in the house.
When the action does hit, it isn’t as plentiful what we got in Cthulhu Blues, but it’s definitely the same caliber of horrifying insanity we’ve come to expect from the series. The story would be scary enough if it only involved cults and bizarre rituals, but Wynne really delivers the goods when it comes to interdimensional monstrosities and how they can mess you up.
One other thing Wynne does oddly well are torture scenes. In most stories, that sort of stuff just makes me cringe. In Smoke & Dagger, however, this type of scene manages to be incredibly powerful while also moving the plot forward instead working as a gratuitous narrative pit stop.
And then there’s the story’s climax, which is fueled by a potent combination of character investment (even for the bad guys) and well executed narrative confluence, all of which comes together in explosively brilliant fashion…for the most part.
What Doesn’t Work
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so this one might be tough to dance around. I guess the best way to state my issue is to say that I love a good twist, but it’s only going to be as effective as its seeding and preceding foundation. A twist’s effectiveness is also diminished somewhat when it has to fill in what initially appear to be some narrative blind spots.
Don’t get me wrong–the reveal at the end is still very cool. It just doesn’t feel quite as well crafted as the rest of the story that led up to it. And while the main crux of the story (and its secrets) are very well addressed, we are also left with some maddening unanswered questions. Would I like to read about them in another SPECTRA Files story? OF COURSE. But when you consider the time gap between this tale and the main books, I’m not sure whether that’s on the table or not. As it stands now, the open ended stuff made me feel more frustrated than intrigued.
Also, Wynne still occasionally locks himself into beautifully written exposition dumps and character reflections. It doesn’t happen much, but when it does, it can grind his hard charging narrative to a halt…which is especially frustrating since his characters’ dialogue and action almost always paint his stories and ideas even better.
Yes, you can totally read this book without having read any of the other SPECTRA Files series.
But should you?
I guess that all depends on what you are looking for. If you’re a huge fan of the SPECTRA series like me, then you’ll love all the Easter eggs and the background information on such a major and interesting character like Catherine. It doesn’t add a whole lot to the original novels, but it definitely provides a different and enjoyable flavor from the same literary universe.
If you haven’t read the SPECTRA Files books, however, then I still think Red Equinox is by far the best place to start. Smoke & Dagger works much better as a supplement to the series than an opening chapter.
That said, if you’re a fan of historical fiction (especially when it involves occult horror), then Smoke & Dagger will make an excellent addition to your bookshelf. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself heading to Wikipedia to check on some of the story’s more bizarre elements only to exclaim “Holy crap, that’s real!”
Or maybe you’ll just start looking for ancient creatures and cosmic entities in the smoke when you accidentally burn dinner…which I totally haven’t been doing since I finished the book…