Holding Smoke by Elle Cosimano

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holding smokeHolding Smoke by Elle Cosimano
Disney Hyperion, May 2016.

In this grippingly paced YA fantasy, a supernatural thread gives edge to a character-driven mystery.

Following a near-death experience, John “Smoke” Conlan’s spirit can separate from his body and walk through walls – a useful skill as he’s incarcerated in the Y, the Greater Denver Youth Offender Rehabilitation Center. For four months, Smoke has been using this ability to gather information, one of the currencies of the Y,

On one of his nightly expeditions, he comes across Pink, a tough young woman who can see and communicate with his spirit. Smoke’s present tense narration brings a taut immediacy to his and Pink’s investigation of the murders that he was (naturally) wrongly convicted for, and as they get closer to the real culprits, they face mortal danger inside and out of the Y.

The author effectively conjures up the beyond grim conditions in the Y, with its warring factions, smuggled drugs and weapons, and guards who don’t always follow the rules. Similarly, she brings a noir feeling to the seedy underworld of the low level dive bars that Pink works in.

The characters, including the two White leads and significant Black and Hispanic secondary characters, are morally complex and largely avoid being clichéd. Though it is mystery, with a good twist that I didn’t see coming, the plot is driven by the development of characters rather than by straightforward jigsaw-piece clue collecting.

Cosimano writes from personal experience of the prison system, and the harsh setting and speculative plot gives the novel a dystopian feel that will have wide appeal to teens.

Review based on an ARC.

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