Orion Publishing Group, 2016
In an alternate England, sin isn’t just a philosophical concept. It’s physical—it stinks, it savours, it stains. Its mark is indelible on your clothes. It’s called Smoke—and it has shaped England into something more Puritan and more fascist than our own.
Smoke—the novel—follows a pair of friends and young gentlemen, Thomas and Charlie, as they delve into the mysteries of Smoke and English society. As their investigation gathers pace and moment, it takes them from their elite private boarding school to the eerie grandeur of a private estate and then down through the strata of class in England similar to Dante’s journey through the Inferno—an allusion not left unwinked at by the author.
Vyleta’s insight into English classism is brilliant. The novel sifts clearly and well the use of concept of sin as an ideological weapon in a classist society—the upper class are trained by punitive ‘Discipline’ not to smoke in public, and as a result the visible difference in sinfulness between the upper and lower classes keeps the latter in their place.
I felt, though, that opportunities for intersectional analysis are missed. Sexism is left untouched, despite the presence of two significant female characters; ableism is considered muddily through one character alone.
Technically, the novel drowns the reader in prose. It meanders through the plot in no hurry to get to its denouement. Some readers will enjoy the sedate pace and painstaking detail; others, me among them, will wish it was about half as long.
Despite the nuance with which Vyleta depicts this alternate English society, the novel’s conclusion—except for the romantic aspect, which I was oh so glad to see, and which I can’t squee over without spoiling—left me unsatisfied. It seemed a tad simplistic, taking society from one extreme to another as a kind of solution. The following epilogue was entirely forgettable.
Smoke is a lucid examination of English class which could hardly be more timely considering the state of UK politics (as presided over by a party of toffs whose rituals and mores have hardly changed since the time period in which Vyleta’s novel is set). It’s also a lushly written brick of a book, which should appeal to a certain sort of fantasy reader. While probably not the next big Young Adult sensation, as it’s been marketed, Smoke is a not-insignificant contribution to the world of fantasy literature.