Imagine a world where your “sinful” thoughts are visible in the form of smoke emanating from your skin for all to see. This is the premise of Dan Vyleta’s novel “Smoke”, which takes place in an England reminiscent of Dickens’ soot-stained London. Only this time, the sooty grime is the result of people’s accumulated sin rather than the smokestacks of industry.
Thomas Argyle and Charlie Cooper are attending Oxford, studying not only the usual curriculum of such an education, but also Discipline in controlling their smoke. Both are gentlemen’s sons, but the boys couldn’t be any more different: Charlie is good-hearted and kind, while Thomas is impatient and abrasive, with a family secret. Still, they are fast friends, especially in the face of Julius Spenser, a sadistic fellow student who conducts impromptu “questioning” of the younger boys of the school to test their smoke discipline. Julius, it seems, never smokes.
But not all is as it seems, as the boys find out on a school-sponsored trip to London. There, they witness the lower classes living in a den of sin and vice, and watch an execution in which a woman is hanged for murder. In the chaos that follows, Thomas sees a mysterious person scraping the soot off the dead woman into a collection jar, and Charlie spies a strange, crook-necked man who doesn’t smoke amid all this bedlam. They leave with more questions than answers concerning smoke and its nature.
Over the winter holiday, the two boys stay with Thomas’s relative, Lady Naylor. Here they meet Livia, Lady Naylor’s rigid, nun-like daughter, and find out that Julius is actually Thomas’s cousin. Lady Naylor has secrets of her own, as they discover she is conducting experiments on soot and smoke, while her husband, the Baron, lies stark raving mad in one of the upper rooms.
When the boys leave the estate, with Livia as an escort to the train station, they’re attacked by an unknown shooter, and Thomas is injured. On the run and in hiding, the three young people embark on a journey that takes them from the coal mines of the countryside to the sewers of London. They search for answers concerning Lady Naylor’s plans and motivations, and struggle with their own smoke-infused emotions as a love triangle develops between Livia and the two boys.
I enjoyed this complex, original novel that examines the nature of sin, class, power, ethics, and love, through odd and interesting characters and a vivid setting. I was a bit frustrated with the ending, as it leaves a rather central question unanswered, but I have since found out a sequel is in the works that will surely satisfy on that point.
I recommend this alternate history/fantasy blend to anyone who enjoys those genres, or those who like to plumb Big Themes with a good adventure story.