Smoke by Dan Vyleta book review

Dan Vyleta’s novel is a very sci-fi class warfare parable

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What if you lived in a world where every sinful thought you had manifested physically, for everyone to see? This is the driving concept of Dan Vyleta’s Dickensian fantasy, a turn-of-the-century-ish novel in which sin appears as intoxicating smoke pouring from a person’s body. The wealthy and the well-to-do are properly educated to learn how to control themselves, while the poor live in great fogs of apparent decadence.

Thomas has never really fit in at his elite Oxford school, but when events conspire to take him and his good-hearted friend Charlie to the home of one of the leading Smoke scientists, they discover that there is more to Smoke than sin, and that the ruling classes may be using it to their advantage.

Vyleta’s latest novel is hard to categorise. Comparisons to Phillip Pullman are justified, with a complex and rich alternate history combined with challenging philosophical concepts and a strong sense of place, and there’s definitely a bit of China Miéville in there too.

The opening chapters, which take place at the historical school, have a feel of YA to it, but Vyleta does not talk down to the reader, and thank goodness for that. It’s dark stuff, not just in terms of violence, but in its broader themes.

Thomas and Charlie are soon joined by Lydia, a pious girl their age who has the wool pulled from her eyes, and the three make for an engaging lead trio. In fact, it’s a novel teeming with fascinating characters. In keeping with the novel’s themes, each has their public and private face, and each has some form of ulterior motive driving them.

There are important messages about how a society’s hierarchy is kept in place, and the dangers of oppression and close-mindedness, but Smoke is also a vivid, imaginative and gripping fantasy thriller.