Maybe I set the bar too high for this one but, having heard it described as a cross between ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘His Dark Materials’, it was hard not to be excited when I was approved to read ‘Smoke’. And, having read it, I can definitely see how the comparisons have been drawn with these classics. Sadly, however, I don’t feel the finished product meets the standard of either series.
Opening in a private boarding school on the outskirts of Oxford, ‘Smoke’ is set in an alternative England in which sin appears as smoke that emits from the body and stains clothes with its soot. School friends Thomas and Charlie are amongst the privileged few – born into the ruling elite, they are being taught to control and suppress their smoke, a sign that will eventually distinguish them from the uneducated masses. It’s a fascinating premise and the opening chapters are full of a dark, foreboding atmosphere with the dense, descriptive writing creating a real sense of the Victorian gothic on every page.
Thomas and Charlie are likeable enough narrators – although Charlie is so pure of heart for a teenage boy that it’s almost unreal – but I felt that there wasn’t enough distinction between their voices. That was, in fact, one of the major problems with the novel for me. As the story opens up, the POV hops between multiple narrators as well as between the third and first person but, despite this, I never got a real sense of each voice as an individual. I feel that the author was, in some ways, trying to emulate the style of Charles Dickens - there is certainly something very similar in the tone – and maybe Dickens fans will find this method of characterisation enjoyable but, alas, I am not a fan of Dickens and I just found it rather leaden.
As the story continues, Thomas and Charlie are drawn into a conspiracy that undermines the very nature of the smoke and its role in society. Forced to run for their lives; their every step hunted by dark forces, the boys – along with a teenage girl, Livia, who is also of noble birth – begin to question the nature of the smoke, their relationship with their own sins and transgressions and the very concepts of purity and sin themselves. All of which sounds – and should be – absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, all of this happens so slowly that I found the latter part of the book to be terminally dull and terribly convoluted.
Following on from the tense opening at the school and the growing tension that takes the boys to a mysterious country manor, there is a well-executed dramatic incident about midway through the book that forces the trio on the run. Following this however the book slows down instead of speeding towards the finale, with an awful lot of hand-wringing and self-reflection and long paragraphs about the nature of sin and personal identity. Couple this with the dense, descriptive writing style and I just felt that the story was getting bogged down, the characters struggling to wade through the mass of world-building and the intricacies of the theology that the author wanted us to understand. Add in the fact that a lot of incidental characters are introduced who seem to drop into and out of the story on a whim, and the final third of the book becomes a real tangle of plot, sub-plots and motivations. By the time the finale did arrive, I just wasn’t invested enough in any the characters to really care what happened to them and I was struggling to retain a grasp on what the most important aspect of the plot was meant to be.
I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me about ‘Smoke’ - it’s a high-concept, densely descriptive and imaginative dystopian with a heavy dose of the Victorian Gothic on the side. As such, I’m sure it will appeal to a lot of readers. And the first half, in the school and the gothic country mansion, was exciting and inventive, with plenty to recommend it. Unfortunately, the second half of the book just gets bogged down in plot and the characters fail to develop in any way that felt meaningful to me. Overall therefore, whether it was a case of too high a set of expectations on my part, or whether it was all just too Dickensian for my tastes, this wasn’t a book that I particularly enjoyed and I probably wouldn’t have pushed through to the finale if it wasn’t for the fact that I was reading for review.
'Smoke' by Dan Vyleta, is published by W&N and is available as a hardback, e-book and audio download from all good bookshops and online retailers. My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley for the chance to read an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.