Smoke is a new fantasy novel by Dan Vyleta. It’s set in a world with certain similarities to the Britain of the Victorian era; however, in this world, a user’s aggressive or negative thoughts and actions are made visible, through the medium of the mysterious ‘Smoke’.
The world consciously evokes Dickensian literary heritage. There’s pastoral green hills, lined with the arrogant offspring of the nobility. There’s small towns, filled with vice and danger, traps for the unwary. And then there’s London, a hive of scum and villainy, wreathed in smoke – and in Smoke. This substance both displays an individual’s lack of moral fibre, and encourages it – as a physical manifestation of darker impulses, when breathed in, it can heighten those impulses. This means that a society is in place in which the nobility rule with a visible moral rectitude – after years of training in finishing schools, they are at least nominally, sufficient paragons of virtue that they do not Smoke. This validates their control of the country – when the urban factory workers and fieldhands, struggling with their own visible small evils, see a man walk through them with a white shirt, unmarked by sin – then they have no intellectual space to argue against divine right, or over oppression.
Sections of the book take place in one of the finishing schools for noble sons, and the prose here is reminiscent of Thomas Hughes, with a harder edge. There’s ritual here, the comforting traditions of day to day life. There’s also casual brutality, entitlement, and a well concocted feeling of conformance to the social order. In other words, this is a school for scions, and privilege permeates the very air, seeping off the page at the reader.
Overall, this is a closed Britain, one with a quiet system of oppression, and a firmly inward, self-referential focus. It’s well (and chillingly) drawn, whilst remaining familiar – with fascinating differences.
The characters are something else again. We follow, in the main, two unlikely friends. One is seemingly quiet, reserved, even withdrawn – a measure of perfection in a world where Smoke is always a danger to one’s social standing. He’s also friendly, and eminently likable – and a perfect foil to his friend. The latter struggles with a complex home life, and a difficult emotional legacy – sitting atop a carefully constrained fountain of rage, always on the edge of letting it loose. Vyleta shows us a boy becoming a man – or perhaps a monster, it’s hard to say. Watching his fears as the black anger rises up internally, the feeling of release in violence and despair is a kind of joy, tinged with concern. Vyleta has given us an excellent portrayal of a duo bonded together by happenstance, but magnetically drawn together. In their petty guilts, unwise risk taking, in their innocence and the loss of it, they are heartbreakingly familiar, and cunningly crafted protagonists – and thoroughly entertaining.
The plot begins as a standard schoolboy yarn, of sorts, a tale of little triumphs, victories in the schoolyard, the agony of defeat in teenage antagonisms. But it gradually broadens the field, leaving the school behind for the houses of the wealthy and their politics, and the raw dangers of larger cities. There’s a slow burn on this one, a sense of impending avalanche as our heroes chase their way across the country, torn between a broader conspiracy and the intimate dangers following them from their school. There’s social commentary here, and a smidgen of wonderfully awkward romance. There’s world-changing science and some wonderful moral moments mixed in as well.
Is it worth reading? I think so. It’s very original, taking a small change and running with it to create a vivid, fully formed world, with well developed players and a plot which, if sometimes rather slow, is very compelling. Definitely worth a look.