It’s the beginning of senior year and Yuki’s psychic awareness of ghostly spirits is threatening to ruin her life. Her ability to sense spirits of the dead isn’t glamorous like on TV. SHE SMELLS THE DEAD.She Smells the Dead begins with a one-page prologue, and I gotta say, having finished the book, it’s probably the best one-page litmus test I’ve ever read. All you have to do to know whether or not this book is for you is read the first four paragraphs. It’s that simple.
The smell impressions are becoming stronger. Yuki is being visited in her dreams, and she suspects that her friend Calvin is involved in something strange. To make matters worse her crush on Garrett is going unrequited, Yuki’s friend Emma is on a rampage against bee oppression, and annoying Calvin Miller mysteriously disappears. Will Yuki be able to focus her powers in time to save the lost soul who is haunting her? Meanwhile, who will save Yuki from following the spirits into the light?
I can smell the dead. I know, you hear of people with superhuman paranormal powers and you think, how cool is that but there is nothing cool about smelling the dead. I mean it could be worse I suppose. The dead don’t smell like rotting corpses, usually. It’s often more of a symbolic smell. “Smell Impressions” as my friend Calvin likes to call them. Ugh. I know, again with the uncoolness. You have no idea.This book was not for me.
Imagine biting into your favorite veggie burger loaded up with ketchup and suddenly smelling rotten eggs. Heck, my biggest fear is finally kissing Garrett Hamlin, the guy I’ve been drooling over since 8th grade, and smelling something awful. Like skunk butt or sweaty gym socks. I. Would. Die.
So yeah. My name is Vanessa Stennings but I go by Yuki. When you’re a kid the name Nessie gets you teased and Vee for victory takes on a whole new meaning when you reach high school and all the boys can think about is getting lucky. So I picked Yuki. It means snow or a snow covered village which, considering all the snow we get here in Maine seems fitting. I didn’t pick it for that reason though. I decided on Yuki because the smell of freshly falling snow is a clean, beautiful smell and if I’m anything, it’s ruled by smells.
Of course I hadn’t realized that a few jocks would start calling me Yucky, but heck, they’re jocks. It’s not like I acknowledge their existence anyway. We live in different worlds. They are obsessed with muscles and fart jokes – and I smell the dead.
Yuki and I had problems from the beginning. I could not take her seriously, and the voice demonstrated in the prologue is why. It’s somehow pretentious and yet vapid, immature at the very least. Yuki’s supposed to be seventeen and in her senior year, but between the vocabulary and the attitude, I’d have pegged her for somewhere around a fourteen/fifteen-year-old freshman, honestly.
She’s got the perky pseudo-goth thing going on, with a side of pseudo-weeaboo, which probably would have been more interesting – or at least, differentiating – if not for the “pseudo” part. She’s not actually a character an anime nerd or “goth” can identify with, unless the mere fact that she calls herself Yuki and dresses in black tulle is enough for you to relate with. Her subculture-related attributes are all really superficial. They have no impact on the story, they don’t lend her any kind added depth or realism, and seem to exist solely to excuse the book’s indulgence in the re-naming and Costume Porn, at least in this installment.
To be clear, I’m not saying Yuki was unrealistic. That’s the thing about immature, phase-ish teenagers – they’re everywhere. It’s just that I would really, really prefer not to read about them. Hence why Yuki didn’t really work for me.
Still, I can get over voices. It wouldn’t have tanked the book for me if the story had worked, but, well, it didn’t. In any respect.
1) The premise lacked a solid foundation
She Smells the Dead lacks any kind of introduction to Yuki’s life. We’re just sort of dropped in at the start of a new case, and come to find that she’s apparently had her ghost-smelling abilities for a while – long enough, at least, to come to the conclusion that they are ghost-smelling abilities, develop a pretty good idea of how they function, figure out what to do with them, and share all this with her friends. It feels more like we’re coming in on the second book in the series, as opposed to the first.
Usually this isn’t something I mind, but with Smells I was left wondering, how exactly did all of that happen? There are like a million steps between smelling something weird and coming to the realization that you’re actually smelling dead people. What were those for Yuki? How did she get from point A to point B? Because I mean, if I suddenly began smelling weird things, “psychic nose” would not be my first assumption. Hell, I don’t think it’d be my thousandth. That’s just not the sort of thing that naturally occurs to people.
But that brings me to point B, which is: even if it did occur to you, how do you even prove it? You can’t with smell alone. That’s why people don’t generally have this power – smelling weird things isn’t proof of anything, and it’s almost impossible to make it so. Without some other reference or outside guidance to go on, you’ve just got a nasal infection, or a brain tumor, or some sort of psychologically-inspired olfactory hallucination. Unless you already knew how it worked, it’d be nearly impossible to prove that the weird odors that you smell are ghost-inspired to yourself, much less your friends.
But apparently because we’ve started after Yuki’s abilities have already been established in her world and among her friends, we’re just not supposed to worry about that, because none of it is ever even mentioned. But I’m sorry, I can’t. The lack of explanation was a serious blow to my ability to suspend my disbelief. As a reader, I need this information – I need to know how this happened, I need it to make me believe that such a thing is even possible. Without it, there’s was a huge piece missing, and those questions about how and why took away from my ability to buy the premise itself.
Not to mention that this robs us of valuable character development. When the book begins, Yuki’s already pretty well-adjusted, if not to the power itself, then at least to the knowledge that she’s some sort of nose-medium. But again, this just leads to more questions. How did she take it to start with? Did she think she was going crazy? Did she worry about tumors? How did her friends cope with the news? Did they worry for her? Did it bring them closer together?
We don’t know, and that’s a shame, because knowing, seeing all of that, would have given us a better idea of who these characters are. God knows that even for characters who can quantifiably demonstrate their powers, it takes a really long walk up an uphill road to get to where Yuki is, emotionally and socially, with her ability. Some never get there. So starting there, with Yuki, is actually sort of an anti-climax in itself. It certainly put a lot more distance between me and empathy for her.
2) There were so many plot issues
The core plot is a pretty traditional ghost mystery, and Stevens deserves credit for making Ghost Smelling not an entirely useless power. In Smells, it functions pretty much the same way psychic dreams do in most other mediums, relaying symbolic information that relies equally heavily on the heroine’s research skills and coincidence to get the her pointed in the right direction. Once we get on that right direction, however, the whole thing kinda falls apart.
The idea is, apparently, that the ghost had hidden his own will while he was alive because he suspected that he might be murdered. He leads Yuki to its location, which it turns out leaves his entire estate to his wife. Yuki has no idea what to do with this information, so she investigates the wife a little more, only to decide that the wife is most likely the murderer – based on little to no evidence. Still, the ghost seems to agree, and yet when Yuki uses a makeshift ouiji board to ask, doesn’t want her to turn her evidence over to the police. In fact, in the end, the ghost tells her to give all the evidence to his murdering wife because he forgives her. And she DOES. The ghost ascends, mystery solved, all in a day’s work.
What? What kind of mystery was that? He sought out Yuki’s help specifically to get the will that he apparently hid back in the hands of his murderer? REALLY? Well then why did he hide the damn thing in the first place? And why the hell did Yuki go along with it? Who does that? She just enabled a murderer to not only get away with killing someone, but to profit from her victim’s death. Yuki and her friends are now all accomplices. Supposedly this is all because the ghost forgave her or something, but no, I’m sorry, forgiveness does not get you off the hook for PREMEDITATED MURDER.
You know, normally I’m cool with taking common tropes in an unexpected direction, and had it been better executed, I really might have enjoyed the direction the mystery went, but as it was, it didn’t feel subversive so much as forgotten about and hastily wrapped up. Which brings us to the next issues…
3) The story structure is a mess
Throughout the ghostly mystery-solving, we’d been subjected to a pretty typical romantic subplot between Yuki and Calvin. His first scene has him swaggering in as Yuki’s handsome best friend, DESIGNATED LOVE INTEREST practically stamped on his forehead, and in this same scene, Yuki develops an instantaneous attraction to him. Hello obligatory romance, figured you’d be stopping by sooner or later.
The next time we see Calvin, only a few pages after his introduction, Yuki begins declaring that he’s acting weird. He doesn’t actually do anything all that out of the ordinary, but we don’t know him well enough to see any subtle differences, so Yuki must tell us his behavior is strange, while simultaneously making it very obvious that this will be a Plot Point later on.
Foreshadowing out the who-ha follows: Calvin has a wolf spirit guide, demonstrates heightened senses, and Yuki has not one, not two, but three, count ’em, three prophetic dreams involving Calvin transforming into a wolf. Eventually we discover that yes, Calvin has recently become a werewolf, and that this is the reason that Yuki is now attracted to him. Apparently her psychic powers also allow her to understand genre conventions.
The relationship between the two goes from zero to sixty in like ten pages. They’re attracted, they date, they’re instantly in love, they have a really melodramatic teenage fight, and then re-bond when Cal reveals his wolf-ness.
Melodramatic and immature, sure, but it’s just the romance subplot. We can work around it. Except that, very abruptly, the sub-plot becomes the plot. Like some vengeful understudy sensing weakness, the romance shoves the mystery out of the way and takes center stage.
The idea is that Yuki can’t wrap up the Case of the Vinegar Ghost unless she gets more control over her powers. This isn’t strictly true. At this point, she’s already solved it. The only thing left is find out what the ghost wants her to do with this information, but after one ouiji session in which she passes out from olfactory overload, Calvin declares that it’s “too dangerous!” for her to try again without training.
Luckily, Cal’s werewolf powers are also spirit-based! He’s a descendent of a tribe of humans possessed by wolf spirits, and apparently because their powers both involve the word “spirit”, the same people who teach Cal to control his inner wolf can teach Yuki to, IDK, unleash her nose as well. Hence the plot-irrelevant detour known as Wolf Camp that hijacks the story and never lets go.
You can’t really call this section padding, because what’s presented here actually seems to be relevant to the series’ overarching story, but it’s seriously mishandled world-building. You can’t bring the plot that you’ve spent a good third of the book establishing to a dead stop just to set up the story rest of the series, especially when that story seems to be based in a completely different sub-genre. It makes reading the book like trying to watch TV while someone’s channel-surfing – just when you’re getting into one show, they switch to something completely different.
The thing is, at the end of the book, I couldn’t tell which of the four different plot threads that were presented was supposed to be the focus of the book. I thought the mystery was the important part, but that only took up maybe a third of the page count, and was resolved with no conflict whatsoever. The Wolf Camp plotline took up the next third of the book or so, but that felt resolved when Cal and Yuki learn to control their powers – also totally without conflict. Towards the end of that one, the book had built up the idea of this epic battle between Yuki, Calvin, and the spirit world on Halloween, and that seemed to be what they were actually training for, so I figured maybe that was where all of this was going. But no, the book ends before we get there.
The closest we get to a climax is a sequence towards the end of the book in which Yuki accidentally draws out Cal’s wolf spirit in the middle of the homecoming dance. He starts shifting, so she and her friends rush him back home, where he breaks his leg while leaping out of the car in wolf form. The most “intense” scene in the book involves Yuki’s stereotypical vegan friend setting his leg into a splint with plot-convenience homeopathic veterinary medicine that we haven’t heard a thing about before.
There is no big bad, there is no end fight, no dramatic rise and fall, just one last burst of deus ex crisis that only serves to muddle an already muddled and meandering storyline. We spend the last few chapters just spinning our wheels as Yuki helps Cal recover, and the book ends in what seems like the middle of the introduction to the third book that just got transplanted on to this one.
It’s a shame, because some of the ideas here aren’t bad. I like the idea of spirit wolves, and that Yuki seems to have some sort of cosmic purpose, even if it does seem to make the people around her speshul. The idea for the series overall could really be decent, but this book did nothing to make me want to find out.
She Smells the Dead just didn’t work at all for me, in any way. It just seemed to continually shoot itself in the foot. The plot is a mess, the pacing is non-existent, the characters are bland stereotypes, the relationship is just so immature, the text appears to be comma-phobic, and the writing doesn’t do anyone any favors. There are interesting ideas here and there, but for me, it’s not enough to justify a read.
Thanks to author EJ Stevens for providing the review copy.