Smoke was written by Dan Vyleta and first published in 2016. In is a historical fantasy novel, set in a 19th Century England where everyone’s sin is visible. Although the novel certainly leaves enough open to allow a sequel, none has been announced at the time of writing and you don’t have to have read any of the author’s earlier work to fully appreciate it.

Every wicked thought or deed causes a person to smoke, producing the thick substance from their pores and throat. Its thickness, smell and colour is determined by how vile the thought that produces it is. The aristocracy and peasants are separated by this very fact. It is known that the poor smoke constantly, unable to contain their sin. The rich, on the other hand, have learned how to live a life of purity. They control their vices and it is poor show for them to smoke at all.

Thomas and Charlie attend an elite boarding school where the sons of Lords learn how to become proper gentlemen. The problem is, Thomas knows that he is stained. His father was a murderer and he knows that he will one day inherit the same sin. Even though he has come of age, his smoke is still dark and uncontrollable, revealing the darkness of his soul. Charlie is the only one who likes him, sure that Thomas isn’t hopeless as he believes.

When the two of them are sent to stay with Thomas’s distant relative – Lady Naylor – for Christmas, they slowly begin to uncover a conspiracy rooted in the depths of society. The rich are no better than the poor, they have just found ways of managing their smoke through specialist sweets and cigarettes. When it becomes clear that they may pose a threat to her plans for country’s future, Lady Naylor arranges an accident to prevent the boys from leaving her land. However, when things go wrong, the boys wind up on the run with Lady Naylor’s daughter Livia in tow and a deranged serial killer following close behind…

While I normally find it quite easy to get through any book, I really had to force myself to slog through Smoke. As you can see from its aggregate rating on Goodreads, it’s had some very mixed reviews and, unfortunately, it didn’t work for me at all. Firstly, I will begin with a warning. I don’t consider this to be a young adult novel at all. It was sold to me as such – compared (bizarrely) to the likes of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. Don’t be fooled by this. While the story does have three young protagonists and doesn’t contain anything that objectionable in its content, its dense prose and frequent philosophical and theological discourses will certainly go over the head of young readers.

The concept of visible sin was explored very well in Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy and I think Smoke carries some of the same appeal. Smoke is a physical thing that is produced by the body, making sinners dirty with soot. It even infects others. In an early scene set at a hanging, we see how an executioners smoke can work a crowd into a frenzy of bloodlust. Yet smoke can also be neutral. We see in the story that it carries joy, lust and even friendship just as easily. Over the course of the novel, many characters debate what the smoke actually means and where it originates. The problem is, no answer to these questions is ever given.

It is implied in the novel that before the 17th Century, smoke did not exist at all. Art exists from the time before this that shows no indication that sinners smoked. Why did people suddenly start to smoke after this date? No one knows. And no one ever finds out. It’s just treated as something that happened and the why is unimportant. While this is realistic, its unsatisfying. I’m not reading a fantasy novel for a sense of realism. I’m reading it to be entertained. Instead, I’m treated to many offhanded comments about the nature of goodness and the name dropping of Philosophers. The boys of the boarding school are not taught any Plato, only Aristotle. If you’re familiar with The Republic and The Nicomachean Ethics, you can hazard a guess as to why. If you’re not, tough because the novel won’t explain it to you. These references become nothing more than words.

The story, as you might have guessed by now, is also unimaginably slow. All the theological discussions are delivered in a heavy-handed way that smothers any budding action. Sometimes, a hundred pages would pass and the characters would barely achieve anything. This is not helped by the way that the prose switches between first and third person narrative. The story has over a dozen different narrators, ranging from the main protagonists to unnamed passers-by (including a random sailor and a farmer). Even when the story starts to gather steam in the final chapters, these first-person sections still pop up to halt its momentum, making even reading the climax feel like a chore.

The characterisation in the story was also severely lacking. Although 90% of the novel consists of lengthy discussions, I never felt as though any of the characters truly learned from their experiences. Thomas and Charlie never change at all, both remaining the same as they were when the story began. Julius becomes utterly unhinged, though I’m not sure what sparked it. His abuse of sweets and cigarettes is implied to have begun long before the story started, yet he doesn’t lose his mind until he meets Thomas. I’m really not sure why that is.

For the characters that do show some measure of growth, it’s still not really in the positive sense. Vyleta really had trouble in his portrayal of women and minorities. The description of sinners being “black as charcoal” (due to the soot) did not sit well with me, nor did the portrayal of a nameless child from a distant tribe (nicknamed Mowgli by the major characters) as being unintelligent and savage.

There are also only a couple of named female characters within the novel. Livia comes to gradually learn that her desire to be prudish is wrong (and in doing so she becomes something of a seductress). Seriously, what’s wrong with being a prude? People shouldn’t be browbeaten into being more promiscuous if it isn’t their thing. The other major female character – Lady Naylor – was a woman of science and had the potential to be truly interesting. However, when it came down to it, her grand plan was purely driven by spite and an attempt to have some measure of “revenge” against her sick husband. It was disappointing that a character who seemed initially complex turned out to be so shallow.

Anyhow, I think I’ve said enough. All in all, Smoke was an utterly forgettable read. It’s full of two-dimensional characters who try their hardest to seem deep and vague philosophies. It also paints a grim picture of humans as beings who are inherently sinful, showing little capacity or reward for genuine acts of kindness. I found the novel almost impossible to read and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to others.

Smoke can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from

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  1. Trackback: Razorhurst | Arkham Reviews

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