& Review: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

The Book Itself: The colors are more saturated, but the rich watercolor image here is Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament,” or more closely resembles one in that series of paintings he did, of the Palace of Westminster at different times of day and in different weather. It is moody and ominous as well as rich and beautiful. I’m not sure if Vyleta or his team in charge of the cover wanted to make a political statement with the use of this painting, or just include it because it had to do with the European setting at the time of the story. Either way, it’s striking.

My Review: England. A century ago, give or take a few years.”
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real.
An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they ve been taught is a lie knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn t clear.

This book took me quite a long time to get through. Partly because I got addicted to a video game for the better part of the month when I started reading it, and partly because I found the pacing to be rather uneven…

We start at a Victorian-era boarding school for rich boys. A bully golden-child and some probably-corrupt clergy rule the roost, and Charlie and Thomas – our protagonists and perfect foils of one another – barely eke by. The intro chapters are intriguing and set up the world very well. All of the students travel to London and see what real Smoke is like when everyone around you is doing bad things. Charlie and Thomas, now with a taste of the real world, become restless…

Then come some interminable chapters at a country estate with a stiff, mysterious woman and her even stiffer daughter. Vyleta attempts some mystery here, as the lady of the house has some secrets of her own, but for the most part these chapters are a slog to get through. They almost lose all of the momentum the opening chapters built up…

And then they leave the estate. With a bang. No spoilers, but the tension and action ratchets up again, and I started flipping the pages faster. Finally, I thought I was worried there for a second.

And then things slowed down again. I guess you could say the book was consistent in that regard: I felt it rose and fell rather evenly with action and tension and interest, only to falter with some middling actions that didn’t make me want to pick up the book again at night.

The writing and atmosphere I will say, are beautiful. Descriptions are smooth and inviting, there aren’t any clumsy metaphors or drawn out sections of infodumping. The plot just kind of…slows at points and at other times, soars. And I wish it had soared the entire time, because I liked delving into how each character developed. Thomas, Charlie, and then Livia grow tremendously as people. By the story’s close, they don’t even resemble the same naïve teenagers the story started off with.

At times I felt confused at Smoke’s nature: does it display differently for different people? Sometimes actions or words characters would say baffled me: why isn’t the room filling with Smoke? Or why is the Smoke coming out more, or trickling out less than I think it should? As a metaphysical devise, and as a plot devise, I think it was rather…hazy (pardon the pun) on purpose.

The ending does end on a satisfying note, and possibly opens up things for a sequel, although I’m not sure the book needs one. The last 50 pages or so are gripping and raw, and gritty in their description of pain and conflict.

If you have a soft spot for Victorian history or long, beautifully written but meandering tales, this one is for you. It’s a solid middle-ground book for me. I would only recommend it to specific readers.

My Grade: C+

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