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Smoke by Dan Vyleta (book review).

October 28, 2020 | By | Reply More

If you sin, you smoke, visible for all to see and infectious to everyone around you. Thin wisps of white smoke for tiny transgressions, thick black smoke for major offences. Nowhere to hide. Thomas and Charlie attend a prestigious boarding school for the upper classes, where education is as much about mastering your emotions to prevent smoke as it is about scholarly pursuits.

After a trip to London, the boys start to question what they’ve been taught about smoke and when Thomas’ aunt, Lady Naylor, opens their eyes to just how deep the lies penetrate, they are faced with difficult choices. Joined by Thomas’ cousin, Livia, they go on the run from Lady Naylor and her son, Julius, whose smoke carries enough rage and hate to destroy the world. Livia’s steadfast determination to remain pure, Charlie’s good-natured belief in everyone and Thomas’ fear of his barely contained anger make these three an unlikely set of heroes but, with the world on the brink of a new age, the fate of England lies in their hands. Will they crack under pressure or can they find a way to be truly free at last?

Although it features teenage protagonists, ‘Smoke’ by Dan Vyleta, doesn’t feel like a young adult book. Its prose is tight, with a literary feel to it and there is a darkness that permeates the entire story and its setting. Sometimes that darkness is very literal, with a section set down a mine where there was no light at all, which meant that everything was explored in terms of other senses and made for a very atmospheric section. At other times, it is the darkness within that is explored. Both Thomas and Julius have a darkness inside them but the ways in which they deal with that, one fearing it and the other embracing it with violent consequences, was fascinating to watch.

Having said that, I did feel that the characters all lacked a bit of depth. There was a bit too much going on and a lot of history to fit in and, with so many characters, I didn’t quite feel like I really knew any of them. I found Livia in particular to be a bit of an enigma and her actions often felt forced for the sake of plot convenience. The developing relationships between Livia, Thomas and Charlie just didn’t ring true, which is a shame because there were a lot of things I really liked and really wanted to like about this book and that slight niggle really detracted from what was going on.

Keeping up with what the various characters were doing was also challenging at times as they moved from place to place, split up, got back together again and came back into the story after having been missing for a hundred pages. There was a lot going on here. That said, the story is great, if you can follow the threads well enough to keep up with it. We’ve got a sinister tale of an alternative Victorian England, with plots and secrets and politics and rebellion. It’s detailed and descriptive and I definitely wanted to find out more.

‘Smoke’ took a bit of effort and I struggled to get immersed in it, but I did enjoy it. If I’d had more time to read this in bigger chunks instead of just a few chapters a day I think I’d have found it a more rewarding read and, although I have to confess that I’m still slightly confused about what happened at the end, a sequel is already available which means this is not really the end. I hope that all will become clear in book two ‘Soot’ and I look forward to seeing how the world has changed following the events of ‘Smoke’.

Vinca Russell

October 2020

(pub: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion. 433 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-474-60095-8)

check out website: www.weidenfeldandnicolson.co.uk/

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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