I received Smoke in exchange for an honest review
I have to give this debut author kudos for his imagination. Smoke has a fascinating premise and a brilliant setting. Combining fantasy and historical fiction, Vyleta’s tale is set in an alternative English past, which feels distinctly Victorian, in a world where people’s sins cause them to emit a type of smoke. Dependent on the thought or deed the smoke will vary in colour and consistency, but it settles in a soot which will mark that person’s clothing, leaving a stain of their sin for all to see.
The notion of soot and smoke is quickly developed into a tool which divides the rich and poor. The rich find ways – either through strict discipline or more underhand means – to not smoke in the public, whilst the poor are constantly marred by soot and smoke, leaving a distinct mark of their sins and passions on their clothes.
The story opens in a privileged Oxford boarding school where we meet Thomas and Charlie. Two best friends with very different background; Charlie comes from one of the most privileged families in the country and has been brought up to mind his manners, whilst Thomas has a family history of murder, and he’s convinced that his own smoke and sin will see him inevitably bound for a bleak future. The two main characters show the varying effects of Smoke and power it can hold over people, and it works.
As the story progresses, the two leave the boarding school for the Christmas holidays and come to reside with some family members who have some strong views about Smoke. It’s through them that the pair begin to learn that everything might not be as it seems, and embark on a mission to discover the origins of Smoke and what it really means for society.
Unfortunately it’s at this point, about a third of the way through, that this book lost me a little. I wish I could have liked it more because it has a fantastic premise and I think it will work for a lot of people. But, for me, the author lost me within a dull, convoluted middle section, and an inevitable love triangle which I just couldn’t quite get on board with.
There’s lots to like about this novel. Not only a fascinating premise and setting, but the writing is really strong in places too. I can’t quite explain why this one didn’t work for me, but I think it might be down to just not being invested enough in the characters. The ending picks up and returns to the fast-paced, exciting and imaginative prose I enjoyed at the beginning of the novel and there were times when I couldn’t book this book down, but other places where the story dragged and pages would go by without anything really happening. Overall, it hasn’t made a big impression on me, but I’m sure plenty will love it.