A review of Smoke by Dan Vyleta
BY MACKENZIE GOWLETT
The idea that some darkness lurks inside every person is an idea that has pervaded human thought for centuries, if not millennia. Long debates have been held to debate morality, righteousness, sin and the human condition. What makes someone human? What makes someone evil?
It seems that Dan Vyleta decided to approach these questions in a rather literal way in his book Smoke. It is an alternate history novel set in 18th or 19th century England, but in this world, “sin” manifests as a physical substance. When someone has an “evil” thought or a bout of anger, wisps of Smoke rise from their body. The color, texture and quantity of the Smoke vary based on the sin and its strength. Anything from a slight wisp of thin grey Smoke mingled in one’s breath to an explosion of Smoke from their entire body like black tar. Smoke is also infectious, pulling out the passions of any who breathe it in. And after the Smoke has settled, it becomes an inert substance called Soot, staining clothes, skin or anything it touches. Marking them.
In this world, the nobility are “pure”. They wear white clothes and flaunt how good they are, rarely showing a wisp of Smoke. Meanwhile the commonfolk smoke like chimneys and live in perpetual flith with stained clothes and buildings painted black and brown by Soot. This is the status quo and it has been this way as far as anyone could remember. But things aren’t always as they seem.
The book follows a pair of schoolboys, Thomas and Charlie. Thomas comes from a lesser noble family and has a mysterious past, while Charlie comes from one of the Great Families that practically rule the country. The third main character is a girl named Livia. She first appears with a very reserved nature, always stiff and proper and showing little to no emotion aside from slight disdain. She is careful not to show any Smoke as it does not befit her station.
When reading this it is easy to relate to these characters in many ways. Many people experience the same fears of inner darkness as Thomas and worry over whether they can really be good. At the same time one can relate to the way Charlie does his best to comfort and aid his friends without truly understanding their problems, or one could relate to the loneliness and conflicted feelings of Livia’s passion at war with her self-imposed discipline and stoic mask.
Together these three uncover conspiracies showing the status quo is not what it seems and Smoke isn’t the holy divination the rich make it out to be. The three grow together as they try to uncover these mysteries; Thomas trying to trust his new friends while worrying he is descending into madness, Charlie starting to sin and show more as he cares more for his friends than his station, Livia letting her noble airs drop to reveal the angry and passionate girl she had been hiding since she lost her father to the Smoke.
This book addresses themes of good and evil, class divides, political corruption, censorship and even the shame of passion. In the end the characters realize that Smoke is not some sign of evil but a sign of passion and emotion. While there may be crimes of passion and murderers Smoke heavily, Smoke also can come from so many other things and mingling smoke with a loved one lays one bare in a way that nothing else can.
This book very much succeeds in its goals of addressing these points as the reader discovers these truths about the world and themselves alongside the heroes of the book. However, Vyleta does fall into a few clichés. Morality and corruption are common topics in many books and the corrupt aristocracy ruling through false pretence of some innate superiority is not a new idea, though the mix of goals and ideas among them does help. Vyleta also does a good job of showing good and evil among all classes, as well as varied levels of Smoke amongst those figures. The Smoke is a good metaphor for the way in which evil is assumed to be obvious by some, when it really is not. Some can appear evil without being so, while others can appear saintly while being evil to their core; just as in this book when some people Smoke heavily while being saints while some who appear Smokeless are the most evil of all.
The characters fall into clichés as well. I’ve read a few other series with similar dynamics: a dark and brooding male character (Thomas) who believes he is filled with darkness and pushes people away for fear of hurting them; a male character who seems to be filled with goodness and can do no wrong (Charlie) who tries to help his friends; then the prim and proper female character (Livia) who is conflicted in so many ways, most of all her feelings for these two boys. And of course the dark boy tries to push her away, believing she should be with his good friend while the good friend tries to step back so as not to get in his friends’ way. But once again, Vyleta does manage to pull off the dynamic well by the end, avoiding the clichéd ending to the “love triangle romance” such stories typically have.
Smoke was an enjoyable book, exploring darkness and evil in the context of a puritan society. The reader and characters must constantly question the darkness of the world and themselves while at the same time questioning if they can truly be human without it. Just because something appears dark and unpleasant, does that really mean it is evil?