BookBrowse Reviews Smoke by Dan Vyleta

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Smoke

by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta X
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2016, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2017, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Set in an alternate Victorian England, where people engaging in sinful thought are marked by a cloud of dark smoke manifesting their indiscretions for all to see.

In Dan Vyleta's universe, set in an alternate Victorian England, people engaging in sinful thought or behavior are marked by a cloud of dark smoke manifesting their indiscretions for all to see. This smoke is a contagion drowning London in a viscous cloud of vapor and soot. Trade embargoes and travel restrictions limit information from the outside world, though there are whispers of strange technologies from abroad. Other aspects are not far from historical reality: The rich lord their superiority over the "common" masses while engaging in abject behavior and the Tories and Liberals battle for political power, along with a few revolutionaries throwing a wrench in the general order.

In this delightfully strange setting, three protagonists embark on a journey for answers about the origin of England's dark epidemic. Thomas Argyle and Charlie Cooper are best friends at boarding school when a message arrives from Thomas's uncle inviting them to visit for the holidays. Once at the manor house they meet the Baroness, Lady Naylor, a woman with a secret laboratory and dangerous ideas and her daughter Livia, a pious girl drawn to both boys against her iron will.

Thomas, Charlie and Livia are thrown into turmoil when a violent incident leaves them unsure whom to trust and in need of an escape from the countryside. Recalling a note from Lady Naylor's laboratory about a dockside delivery in London, they set out on a reconnaissance mission to find out what she is receiving and why. The action is heightened by a masked psychopath stalking the teens, leaving a trail of horror in his wake and other macabre and sinister details involving experimented-upon children and mysterious lemon candies. In London they meet a man called Grendel who does not smoke, a complete anomaly in this world. Charlie calls him an angel, but Thomas and Livia are skeptical, and the fact that he shares a name with Beowulf's monster is inauspicious.

Vyleta's London is pitch-perfect Dickensian in tone as well as subject matter, with subtle critiques of class and imperialism and more overtly in an encounter with unionizing coal miners. These elements are well-incorporated nods but Vyleta's vision is entirely original and stunning in its portrayal. At the edge of the city the protagonists find "puddles greasy with sin's residue, the air pregnant with its stink." The central square is the site of a functioning gallows, dog fights, a freak show, and a dentist operating with a pair of rusty pliers. The gothic motif is resonant everywhere, down to a character's handwriting described as "a spider dragging its black guts."

In addition to vivid physical description, Vyleta outlines a rich metaphysics of smoke, from its triggers to its scents and taxonomy and cleaning methods for the removal of its sooty residue. Smoke is also ripe for metaphor and poetic exposition: "Smoke eats our reason with a charcoal spoon. We measure our humanity against its darkness," it passes from one person to another, and "all that is dark in them rises up like a dog called to its master."

Vyleta shifts perspectives from chapter to chapter allowing for richer characterization and a wider understanding of motivations. While we hear most frequently from the three youth protagonists, even the villains and very minor characters are given a voice. Switching from first to third person, however, occurs sometimes at random which can be a distraction. Thomas's back story is alluded to frequently but remains mysterious, with the result that he does not seem as fully developed as the others. There is a chance this is intentional. While the story has a distinct and satisfying conclusion, enough is left unresolved to leave room for a sequel or series revealing more. This possibility is bolstered by the fact that, while not marketed as young adult literature, perhaps because of its dark material, there are similarities to the Harry Potter series: three young protagonists, boarding school, sinister adults, supernatural themes, etc. Comparisons aside, Vyleta's story is all his own — a remarkably riveting, grim, but hopeful novel, that defies typical genre assignations. Hope for a sequel may be wishful thinking, but it is a compliment of the highest order.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2016, and has been updated for the July 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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