I was thrilled to be accepted to read Smoke via NetGalley.
“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.
As soon as I discovered Smoke, I knew I wanted to read it. Victorian England? Check. The sordid underbelly of London? Check. Magic?! Count me in.
It starts out as Harry Potter, and descends into The Crimson Petal and The White; the people’s London, full of violence and lust and sin and smoke. It gives the term “The Big Smoke” a whole new meaning.
We begin in Oxford, at an upper-class boarding school for boys. Thomas, our first protagonist, is woken by his friend Charlie, our second, so not to miss the meeting in the bathrooms in the middle of the night. Julius, the undisputed leader, is holding a secret questioning, to determine whether the boys still Smoke. It appears to be more of a power play than anything else; a theme which is central to the story.
Smoke is the physical manifestation of sin. The wealthy are taught to control it, to hide their natures, through rigorous Discipline. The poor are left to wallow in their own Smoke, feasting on each other’s sins. When the boys first travel to London, and experience the populace Smoking with abandon, several things are awakened inside them. Thus begins the journey from strict, stiff-upper-lipped education, to free, sinful Smoking. Will they be able to embrace it?
I did find Smoke somewhat difficult to get through. It perhaps went on a good 25% too long; it could have been drawn out to create a trilogy. Perhaps it still will become one. In any event, it seemed to go on forever at times, particularly the ending.
Vyleta’s writing isn’t perfect, but his characters are intriguing and intricate. Julius with his madness, his rich boy’s snobbery and entitlement; Thomas and his fear of the violence that lives within him; Charlie and his good-natured acceptance of most things; Livia and her fear of what embracing the Smoke might mean. Even background characters are given the spark of life, showing the genius of Vyleta. His true talent lies in his characters.
As for a central theme, I find myself quite unable to pin it down. Inequality? Class systems? Humanity? Religion? The idea that our emotions is what makes us human? Right vs wrong? There are many ideas running through this book, and I suppose it’s up to the reader to determine what they want to take from it. That’s probably one of the biggest draws of Smoke – it appeals to all, on one level or another.