Smoke – Dan Vyleta
If sin were visible and you could see people's anger, their lust and cravings, what would the world be like?
Smoke opens in a private boarding school near Oxford, but history has not followed the path known to us. In this other past, sin appears as smoke on the body and soot on the clothes. Children are born carrying the seeds of evil within them. The ruling elite have learned to control their desires and contain their sin. They are spotless.
It is within the closeted world of this school that the sons of the wealthy and well-connected are trained as future leaders. Among their number are two boys, Thomas and Charlie. On a trip to London, a forbidden city shrouded in smoke and darkness, the boys will witness an event that will make them question everything they have been told about the past. For there is more to the world of smoke, soot and ash than meets the eye and there are those who will stop at nothing to protect it . . .
Review: Oh, disappointment. It started out so perfectly and then fell apart.
Smoke is set in an alternate reality past where sin is visible. Sinful thoughts or actions produce Soot and Smoke that seeps out of people’s skin and coats their bodies. The wealthy ruling families of England have learned to control their smoke so no one can see them sin. The poor are left to wallow in their own filth. One day, two wealthy schoolboys wander away from their class’s London fieldtrip and come across a gallows where a murderer is being executed. At the execution, they witness something that draws them into the life-and-death business of Smoke control. The boys will have to rethink everything they thought they knew about their world.
“For a minute and more after this announcement, Thomas goes deaf. It's a funny sort of deaf: his ears work just fine but the words he hears do not reach his brain, not in the normal manner where they are sifted for significance and given a place in the hierarchy of meaning. Now they just accumulate.” – Smoke
Let’s start with the positives. The beginning of this book is amazing because the world is so unique. It hooked me immediately. I’ve never read a book quite like this one. It’s part Victorian historical fiction, part gritty dystopia. This fictional world is like our world, but the presence of Smoke makes it eerie. There’s a dark undercurrent that runs through the whole story. In this world, beautiful estates are more dangerous than London slums. It’s brilliantly atmospheric. The world-building is the only reason I finished the book. If I hadn’t loved the world so much, I would have DNFed it.
I also like the political undertones. Fictional England has cut itself off from the rest of the world. Very few people are allowed in or out of the country. Trading between countries is restricted. It’s illegal to obtain technology or information from outside of England. These restrictions help the ruling class stay in power. The poor people don’t question authority because they aren’t fully aware that their lives could be different. Smoke shows the dangers of political isolation.
The writing style took me a while to get used to. For the most part, it’s third person, present tense, and there’s a lot of distance between the reader and the characters. You never really get inside the charaters’ heads. This keeps the world mysterious, but it also makes it difficult for the reader to understand what’s going on. The book has a huge learning curve. There’s no authorial handholding here. The reader is just tossed into the world and left to work things out for themselves.
The writing style is very dense. There’s not much dialogue. If you like British classics, you’ll probably like the writing style of Smoke because the author seems to be mimicking the style of books written in the 1700-1800s. The style works with the setting and atmosphere, but it slowed down my reading speed.
The writing style also makes it difficult to connect with the characters, but they’re likeable enough that I kept reading. Charlie is sweet and charismatic; Thomas has serious anger-management problems. Together, they make a great team. Then, they meet a girl and get themselves into a love triangle. Teenage romantic angst ensues. The love triangle has an unexpected ending, which I appreciate. I’ve seen a lot of fictional love triangles, but never one like this.
“He cannot spit, it seems, without her presence being written in the bile.” - Smoke
My biggest problem with the book is that nothing happens. It’s infuriating. There are tiny bursts of action—just enough to give me hope that something is finally going to happen—and then the plot slows down. Sometimes it’s so slow that I forgot what the characters were supposed to be doing. Charlie and Thomas spend most of their lives thinking deeply about everything. Because, you know, that’s what teenage boys do when mysterious strangers are trying to murder them. They sit on church steps and ponder the universe.
I had high hopes for this book. It starts out strong, but by the end, I was bored and ready for it to be over.