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'Smoke' Is A Gloriously Murky Vision Of The Past

"There's no more hateful smell in the world than the smell of Smoke," writes Dan Vyleta in his compelling new novel, Smoke. "Smoke" is capitalized for a reason — and a sinister one at that. In Vyleta's grim, deliriously imagined vision of early-20th-century England, living human bodies produce Smoke (and Soot) according to their guilt. Like an inverse measure of a person's worth, the amount of Smoke someone produces not only publicly marks their ill deeds and even thoughts — the stuff is conjured when "you reach for biscuits before they've been offered" or "you smirk as a footman slips on the freshly polished stairs" — it's a sign of their social class. The rich have learned to hold in their Smoke and maintain their physical and moral cleanliness, thereby securing a higher standing; the poor have not.

Teens being teens, they have a harder time controlling themselves — and Vyleta wisely capitalizes on that by focusing Smoke on two young boarding-school students, Charlie and Thomas. Best friends, they become rivals for the affection of Livia, whose mother Lady Naylor conducts arcane studies that seem to have something to do with the Smoke. In an increasingly twisty plot, the true nature and origin of the Smoke becomes a central question — especially after a brewing revolution threatens to challenge England's insular rule of law, which demands that its citizens neither travel abroad nor receive foreign books or ideas. There's a mystery at the heart of Smoke, and with each secret that Charlie, Thomas, and Livia unveil, the dark truth about their world grows more eerily obscure.

Obscurity might be apt in a book called Smoke, but at points Vyleta takes it too far. The story has a marked Dickensian slant — the smoke and soot at the start of Dickens's Bleak House are an obvious parallel, and Smoke even comes with an epigraph from Dombey and Son — but Vyleta's mimicry of Dickens's ornate prose sometimes bogs down the pace. And the rules by which the Smoke operates never fully make sense, varying from instance to instance. That inconsistency — made more complicated by various conflicting theories and philosophies regarding where the Smoke comes from and why it exists — might aggravate anyone expecting a more conclusive payoff.

Elusive and nebulous, this gas-lamp fantasy at time borders on steampunk — or would that be smokepunk? — while avoiding anything remotely resembling cliché.

Again, though, this is a book called Smoke. Vyleta's refusal to make his central premise crystal clear eventually becomes one more gloriously murky layer of atmosphere. Elusive and nebulous, this gas-lamp fantasy at time borders on steampunk — or would that be smokepunk? — while avoiding anything remotely resembling cliché. Instead, science in Vyleta's England has become, like the Smoke, just one more tool of division and control. At the same time, the country's fallen prey to its own insularity, its tradition of keeping things too locked in.

It's no wonder the story is set at the end of our world's Victorian Era, following nearly a century of repression and rectitude; Vyleta may be making a statement about the abuses of the Industrial Age with blatant, hit-you-over-the-head symbolism — the Smoke from bodies rather than the smoke from factories — but he's also smuggling in much more subtle ideas about moral profiling that resonate deeply in light of today's political climate. And with Smoke, he's doing it all through the grimy lens of a dystopian past rather than the shopworn dystopian future.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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Jason Heller