Dan Vyleta’s Smoke is enthusiastic, but insubstantial

I will always be suspicious of anything marketed as “Dickensian.” It calls to mind overly long period films, comically morbid conversations about the weather, and convoluted plots that suggest the author’s creative process involved throwing random facts about the Industrial Revolution at a wall until something stuck.

That’s how I felt reading Smoke, a compromise between dark dystopianism and historical fantasy that proudly proclaims both its Dickensian identity and its various influences on its back cover. These influences, ranging from Aldous Huxley to Amitav Ghosh, are obvious from the moment you turn to the first page. The titular smoke, an affliction of the morally bankrupt that billows from the bodies of those who have sinned, draws obvious parallels with Brave New World’s Soma, enough so that whole swaths of the novel can seem derivative.

I picked up Smoke because it was summer and I needed something light to read, and the beautiful cover paired with the scarcity of new fantasy releases made this one stand out. The intriguing synopsis drew me in: it’s a story of two boys at a deeply religious boarding school who discover there might be more to the smoke than they’ve been told. They then set out to uncover it, a quest which puts them in the path of a curious scientist, an unhinged classmate and a squad of sinister secret police. At first, perhaps somewhat blinded by my aesthetic appreciation of the cover, I found it original and interesting enough that the pages flew by without my noticing – a useful reminder that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There are comparisons to be made with Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, and some far reaching ones with J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. But in terms of ambition, the closest comparison I can come up with is Patrick Rothfuss’s still-unfinished Kingkiller Chronicles, which has gained a cult following since its release in 2007. As with Smoke, some of the dialogue is unbearably cheesy. You get the sense that you’ve seen many of the fight scenes before, and the bar scenes and the sex scenes. But it works, not just because it’s well-written, but because it’s comfortable. You’ve seen the part where the main character thoroughly impresses everyone with his otherworldly lute playing before, but you like it anyway.

For maybe the first hundred and fifty pages, Smoke fits this mold. It is fun and strange, more “Goblin Market” than A Child’s Garden of Verses, but with a firm commitment to pacing. Unlike Rothfuss’s series, however, the pervading atmosphere of creepiness and urgency eventually wears off. A major discovery is made, and after that it’s just a matter of following the heroes as they flee to a seedy version of London and evade their pursuers while trying to figure out the truth — after a suitably long deliberation, of course.

Although parts of it can definitely drag, I did enjoy Smoke. The best parts of it felt classic: familiar, but in a good way. This is good reading to do when you need a break from homework, fun without too much substance. Vyleta’s over-reliance on the smoke as a plot device leads to the midsection of the book falling flat, with too much dependence on lecturing vaguely about religious authoritarianism rather than letting the main characters make any significant progress. Thankfully, the final third digs itself out of the hole it begins in to reach a satisfying conclusion. But reaching that conclusion can feel like a slog, one punctuated by characters whose rants against the establishment become just as rote as those of the elite they protest.
Read this if you liked: Arcadia (Iain Pears), The Magician (Lev Grossman), The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro), A Darker Shade of Magic (VE Schwab)

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