Dan Vyleta’s Smoke is a novel that first caught my eye with its beautiful cover – like an impressionist painting in rich shades of purple and orange. But it was my husband who really latched onto it and wanted me to buy it. He called it the “Smoke on the Water” book, and with its Deep Purple hued cover, the reference was unignorable! In the end, though, its summary sealed the deal. Indeed, Smoke promises a ton of themes and dichotomies, including wealth inequality, religion vs. science, political issues, complicated relationships, a love triangle, murder, secret police… all wrapped up in a dystopian fantasy set in Victorian England. It’s no wonder I was intrigued!
Smoke starts off following Thomas Argyle and Charlie Cooper, two friends at a London boarding school. But this isn’t your ordinary historical fiction novel; it offers up a bit of fantasy to spice things up. In this world, smoke rises from people when they do or even think something sinful. It’s impossible to hide bad deeds and unkind thoughts, meaning people must always be on their best behavior. The smoke that rises from people also dirties their clothes, making it hard to hide their private sins, too.
Thomas and Charlie spend a holiday with a relative of Thomas, where they meet and befriend Livia Naylor. But her half-brother Julius Spencer – also the classmate of both Thomas and Charlie – despises the two boys. Thomas, Charlie, and Livia end up discovering some terrible secrets, and they have to run for their lives to escape the evil Julius. But as they embark on a cross-country adventure, they run into plenty of people, and it’s not always clear who they can and can’t trust. Will these strangers in a cabin help them? What about their school teacher -surely he’s trustworthy? The stakes are high, as the danger heightens to murder.
Smoke is something of an adventure, but it throws in science fiction, politics, class struggles, religion, and more. For example, we see early on that poor people smoke much more, whereas wealthier people are comparatively much cleaner and purer. It turns out the rich have been rigging the system, and they have a sort of candy that suppresses their smoke. No, the poor aren’t inherently worse; the rich are just buying the means of looking morally better. This has crystal clear implications for our real society today in the 2010s.
Additionally, Smoke unravels relationship dynamics – with oneself, with friends, with family, and with romantic love. A love triangle does develop over the course of the book, but the ending offers up a welcome twist on how to resolve it.
Beyond the content of the book, the author also plays with the format. The chapters alternate between third person and first person. The third person chapters tend to focus on one character (for example: Thomas or Charlie). Interspersed are shorter chapters in first person, from the perspective of our four main characters as well as the perspectives of random minor characters. It gives the novel a really expansive view of what’s going on, and sometimes the outside perspectives (from the secondary characters) give unique insight.
Smoke is an ambitious, far-reaching book that expertly ties together disparate themes. It never slows down, always stimulating your imagination with new characters, a fast-changing plot, and interconnected themes. At times it can be a bit much to process, and it may need a second read to get the most out of it. But it’s certainly intriguing and memorable, and I’d certainly like to read more from Dan Vyleta.