Smoke by Dan Vyleta || Book Review

Author: Dan Vyleta is the award-winning, German-Canadian author of The Crooked Maid and the Quiet Twin.

Release Date: 7th July 2016

Rating: **


Smoke by Dan Vyleta has been described as a cross-between a Dickens novel, Harry Potter and Johnathon Strange & Mr Norrell and I can see the links to all. However, I think describing it as similar to Harry Potter is a ploy by the publishers to get younger readers to pick it up when the book, although YA in the sense it has YA aged characters, feels much more like a clunky, un-sure thriller of adult proportions.

That is my own clunky way of saying: it doesn’t have a clear focus or plotline throughout.

I gave the book a 2-star rating as although the writing is good nothing stands out as exceptional to me, in fact I would go as far as saying that I think the structure of the narrative is very confusing.

The story itself centres of the reason for the title: Smoke. It is an alternative/dystopian London, in the 19th century, where Smoke is attached to everyone and is contributed to sin and being sinful. Basically you smoke when you’re angry, or you lie or you are thinking ‘impure’ thoughts.

With me so far?

I don’t think the description of the Smoke is clear. There are hundreds of references to it, the soot, the smell and the different types of smoke, but the descriptions are still very weak and repetitive. I never got a clear idea of it (ironic, since its smokeit’s not supposed to be clear I guess).

The setting of the story is so mismatched and under-described that I was very confused during the course of the novel. It jumps between narrators, which means the story jumps from Oxford to London, from boarding school to manor house etc.

It starts off in a boarding school for the sons of the wealthy gentry, who are supposedly the purest of the population (there is a lot of class-related angst in this novel, but I’ll get to that in a minute). This is where we meet the two protagonists: Thomas and Charlie, two 16 year old boys.

Thomas is an orphan whose father committed a crime and who struggles to ‘contain his smoke’ and Charlie is a ginger saint who is cool-headed and kind and everyone just loves him.

The antagonist is harder to pinpoint.

Is it Julius the slightly stockier and calmer of the boarding school boys, who appears perfect and is a prefect with a weird obsession with Thomas, or is it the male teachers at the boarding school – which is practically Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby – who parade around talking about the indignity of smoke and threaten to court-martial you if you do and appear slightly more freaky as the story goes on?

I don’t know!

The characters are not clear and it is only after 100 pages+ that you start to realise that Thomas and Charlie are the main characters. It jumps around a lot with hardly any follow-through or revelations, or at least revelations that make sense!

When the two boys are shipped off to stay with Lady Naylor over Christmas – a woman who has a personal connection to a teacher, although Charlie has a family and Thomas had plans to stay with them? Weak exposition! – Everything becomes particularly jumbled but the story does begin to pick up pace.

This, however, is where the Harry Potter element comes in. They meet a girl: Livia Naylor, a saintly, intelligent girl who hates Thomas and likes Charlie, although later the trope-y love-triangle begins.

I can’t explain much more without giving away the whole story-line but it is so muddled and incoherent I’m not sure I could explain it anyway.

I think the main confusion comes from the amount of characters that are in this novel! There are too many! The several teachers, the janitor, the manor house family/staff, the miners, coachman, Londoners, churchman, boatman, women in white..! Too many!

Vyleta can write but this story was weak in exposition and weaker still in narrative.

Another fault, as I mentioned before, is the class-element. Vyleta becomes noticeably preachy during the course of the book, practically shouting in written form that class is an oppressive issue in society and that the upper class are mild-mannered toffs, with no care for the poor, and the poor are dirty, pissing losers.

 Smoke is supposed to be a thriller but asides from a few lack-lustre moments I didn’t find it very thrilling. There were moments when I wanted to know what happened next – the first moment being passed 120 pages in and even then thet gathered momentum subsided quickly with a quick introduction and dismissal of character which wasn’t explained for another 100 pages.

Although it has an interesting premise and is clearly a stimulating idea I think this story could have done with being simplified, less muggy and more descriptive and slightly less oppressive on the class and gender side of things. It is very male-orientated!

Overall I gave it 2 stars because 1 star is for books I chuck across the room. This is more interesting than that, but it was also a disappointment, unfortunately.

Let me know what you think if you read or have read it!

Happy Reading!

No comments