Finished June 13
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
This novel is set in an alternate England, one in which those with wicked thoughts or engaged in sinful actions emit smoke from their bodies. The less smoke one emits, the better one is, and the upper classes smoke very little. Of course, this lack of smoke isn't all natural, because they can afford substances that control the smoke, and of course control knowledge of these substances to maintain their reputation of superiority. The time is the early twentieth century, in an England who has closed off many of its contacts with the rest of the world, especially in terms of new technologies and scientific learning.
In this world we are introduced to two boys of about sixteen, at an upper class boarding school. Thomas came to the school recently despite laws making such schooling compulsory, and thus is a bit of an outsider. Charlie is the son of one of the wealthiest families in the country, a gentle boy who is also highly intelligent. As the book opens, the boys have been woken in the night to undergo a peer controlled examination around the emitting of smoke. The exercise is a form of bullying and control. The unexpected result of this nighttime encounter has both Thomas and the upperclassman organizer of the examination forced to undergo private tutoring.
As the book unfolds, the action organizes it into sections. The first section is at the school, the second at the country house of Thomas' uncle, where both Charlie and Thomas learn more about the nature of smoke and the control of it and meet Thomas' cousin Livia. The third section is one that introduces more characters who are at a lower level of the social order, and the three young people discover that wealth and freedom are not always aligned. The fourth and fifth sections are set in London, with more understanding and manipulation of the nature of smoke and its meaning.
The quotes that introduce each section highlight the some of the inspiration for this novel, Dickens' world of complex plots, a London of dirty fog, and harsh realities. Even the cover image used draws from that time period of a dirty, dangerous city.
There is so much in this book to comment on that it is hard to know where to start, especially if one is trying not to give away plot elements. It abounds with secrets, personal ones, family ones, national ones. Secret labs to delve into scientific ideas outlawed by the state. Secret police who operate outside of state control. Secret feelings between people. Complex relationships between a mother and her children, between friends, between men and women. Smoke illustrates the complex worlds of reason and passion, social order, religion versus science, and ethical behaviour. There is also lots of action, from chase scenes and dramatic escapes, to a love triangle, to violent interactions.
An amazing read.