Smoke has one of the most highly original premises of any novel I’ve read recently, and yet it also has elements of Dickens, Philip Pullman and Suzanne Collins, among others. Vyleta seems to pull from many ideas, but re-imagines them in a unique way. His style has much to do with it. At times his prose is clipped and staccato, and at other times meandering and poetic. He interjects passages of history and philosophy, then switches perspectives from chapter to chapter, getting inside the minds of multiple characters, what motivates them, what they are feeling, and what their world view consists of. And his writing style changes with each character’s POV, quite dramatically at times.
As for the premise, the Smoke, which is essentially a person’s vice or sins made physical, is more than just that, as it turns out. Like in the His Dark Materials trilogy, these manifestations reflect things about your personality, your feelings and your intentions. It can expose who you are to someone attuned enough to pay attention. And in this alternate Victorian history,which is not far from reality, the church and the aristocracy have interests in controlling people’s morality, albeit for different reasons. And there are many ways one can stop themselves from smoking, either by extreme discipline (which could drive you mad), or by other, more scientific methods, generally available only to the wealthy.
Vyleta did a wonderful job of bringing in the political aspects of the story without ever losing focus on the three main characters: students from a privileged aristocratic school whose parents are mixed up in a conspiracy, or multiple conflicting conspiracies, regarding Smoke, science, reason and the new liberalism vs the old order of the elite ruling families and the outdated ideas of what Smoke really is.
So while the plot might feel like a mystery-thriller, the book really is about how people handle change and the idea of an unknown future, how our ideas of morality are not the same as morality itself, how modes of social control are transitory and the harder people try to maintain power the more quickly that power will slip through their fingers. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be be evil? Is there even such a dichotomy to begin with, and in whose interest is it to make you think there is?
Reviewed by Sarah Holdgrafer, Internet Order Coordinator