Smoke and Key – Kelsey Sutton

“You’re dead, darlin’. This isn’t hell, but it’s the next best thing.”

She hears a voice imploring her to wake up. She falls and finds herself surrounded by dirt. In Under she meets a group of strangers whose bodies are in different stages of decomposition. While they can all remember general knowledge they do not remember anything personal from their lives. Each awoke with an item that was buried with them, an item that helps their owner decide their Under name.

The girl who wakes at the beginning of the book becomes Key. She meets Ribbon, Smoke, Journal, Handkerchief, Doll, and many others. Shortly after Key arrives in Under the first murder occurs and there’s no waking up from this death.

We are ghosts, but we are the ones being haunted.

Key’s flashbacks provide frequent snippets of information about her life before death, building towards revelations that may hold more danger than she could imagine. I found the flashbacks interesting but expect readers who aren’t a fan of multiple flashbacks could find their frequency and slow drip of information irritating.

Given the exponential growth of my TBR pile I was definitely attracted to a life after death that included books and no need for sleep. I loved guessing who the characters may have been before their deaths, the mysterious writings on the wall, the magic and Journal’s tower with all of his books.

I liked getting to know the main characters but found many of the minor characters interchangeable. I didn’t always know which minor character was being referenced as I didn’t know much more about them other than the item they were buried with. I was disappointed by the lack of resolution surrounding Doll; I did learn who she was in life but I have so many unanswered questions about her.

While I enjoyed some aspects of the love triangle I did find the kissing scenes when the characters were dead a tad squirmy, although I acknowledge I probably overthought it. Maybe if I hadn’t already read about the putrid death breath of other characters (who don’t need to breathe because they’re dead, but anyway) it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but the idea of death breath kisses didn’t exactly make me want to go, “Awww!” I can only hope that Tintype found some toothbrushes and toothpaste for these kissing corpses to use that I wasn’t aware of.

I adored the concept of this book and loved the initial world building but would have liked to learn more about Under and its residents. Had this book covered all of the details I craved it would have been close to twice the length though. The magic was interesting but could have been fleshed out (sorry!) more. I also found the mystery fairly predictable. The final few chapters wrapped up the story too quickly for my liking. Despite my need for more, most of my questions were answered and a sneaky tear did escape quite unexpectedly.

Content warnings include physical abuse and abandonment. Characters also discuss a death by suicide that occurred before the events in this book.

Overall this was an enjoyable read (one I can see myself rereading) and I am interested in reading more of this author’s books. I don’t usually wander into historical fiction territory but this book made me wonder what I’m missing out on. Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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 …

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