England. A century ago, give or take a few years. An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real. An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they’ve been taught is a lie—knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn’t clear. This is the world of Smoke, a narrative tour de force, a tale of Dickensian intricacy and ferocious imaginative power, richly atmospheric and intensely suspenseful.
SMOKE is a fascinating novel set in an alternate version of historical England. Dan Vyleta has a magical way of capturing the atmosphere of the story, setting a serious but adventurous tone as the characters go from boarding school to mysterious estates to London. The intense class divides, portrayal of London, and the attitudes of both Charlie and Thomas suggest a deep Dickens influence, though the speed of the plot follows a quicker, contemporary young adult literature pace.
While the premise is engaging and unique, I had a difficult time connecting with the characters. While the majority of Thomas, Charlie, and Livia’s parts are in third person, certain chapters featuring minor characters use first person, and the distinction creates a distance from the main characters. However, such a choice may reflect the close union of the three characters by the end of the book, as a first person narration would separate them more. Even so, Livia’s character is most sorely affected by this, as it often restricts her role to one as primarily a love interest.
SMOKE is an evocative mix of action, mystery, lies, and battles of all sorts of thoughts. Though some areas of the story leave something to be desired, the premise, refreshing ending, and complex plot make SMOKE a whirlwind of a read.