No one knows were the Smoke came from or how to get rid of it, but most people in Dan Vyleta’s alternate turn of the twentieth century England have a fairly clear idea of what the smoke means: sin. In Smoke, the rich are taught to control their emotions and live according to a strict moral code so that they don’t smoke. The poor are dismissed as naturally sinful and left to carry on with life as best they can. The smoke and the soot just reinforce the old boundary lines in England. After all, how can one argue with that someone who doesn’t smoke has the right to lead those who do, if one has been told since infancy that smoke is evil?
Not everyone is content to leave smoke alone, as Thomas Argyle, Charlie Cooper, and Livia Naylor learn. Thomas and Charlie, friends at a school for the privileged that teaches children to control their emotions and, thus, their smoke, travel to the home of Baroness Naylor for the Christmas holidays. Their plan is to lay low at Thomas’s aunt’s house after Thomas got into a fight with the favorite at the school. The plan is almost immediately disrupted when Thomas learns of the Baroness’s investigations about smoke. He has been told all his life that he’s tainted by smoke and his parents’ sins; it’s easy to see how a potential cure would appeal to him. But when that favorite pupil, Julius Spencer, shows up at Baroness Naylor’s home, too, it isn’t long before the plan to lay low goes all to hell.
Smoke is full of ideas and themes that I feel I could write a paper about how it deals with class divisions and comments on actual history and religion. After Thomas and Charlie flee with the Baroness’s daughter, Livia, they see what life is like for the lower classes. They seek shelter with coal miners and the poor in London. They meet unionists and curiosities and demented scientists. I’ve heard the word Dickensian thrown around about Smoke. Dickensian is not quite the right word, though Vyleta does give us more than a few slices of life in this book. Rather, Smoke is a twisted look at the dirty, rigid, unethical Victorian life if its worst qualities and values had clung to power longer than they actually did in our history.
In addition to the sheer number of ideas presented in Smoke, I was struck by the dark, ominous atmosphere. I felt a pervasive sense of dread as I read about our trio of protagonists. It seems that everyone is out to get them and they don’t know who to trust. Julius, in particular, is a sinister character. At the beginning of the novel, Julius is the golden child at his school—on the surface that is. Underneath his seeming lack of sin, Julius has been using trickery to take advantage of sin and emotion. He surrenders his control, and eventually his humanity, over the course of the novel as he literally succumbs to the dark side.
I think I need to read Smoke again. The story is so densely layered with alternate history and the atmosphere so tense that I know I missed things as I raced to the end. I’m glad I bought a copy so that I don’t have to return Smoke to the library.