Book Review: Smoke


Smoke – Dan Vyleta
Published by Hachette New Zealand

If sin were visible and you could see people’s anger, their lust and cravings, what would the world be like?

Set in Victorian England, Smoke is the story of an alternative human history, in which one’s “sinful” actions and thoughts are manifested in wisps – or eruptions – of smoke. It’s a fascinating concept, with the potential to be rather thought-provoking.

Vyleta has created a very believable history and social commentary. The upper class never smoke, while the lower class smoke ceaselessly. The upper class have found a way to control and contain their sin, and in doing so, have found a way to control and contain the lower class. This class distinction and oppression is a thread woven throughout the story.

The reader is given various views on the substance of the smoke. The scientific view is that the smoke is disease, while the religious view is that smoke is sin. There’s also the view that smoke is purely a way for the elite to oppress the lower classes, or that smoke is passion, animal instinct.

With all that, you’d think I’d be shouting “Wow!” from the rooftops, but…Smoke was good, but not great. It’s a well-crafted story, written evocatively and oft poetically…but it just lacked a bit of substance for me. It felt like Vyleta compromised on the tangible in favour of the philosophical; some readers will relish that, but by the end, I was left feeling a bit…empty.

Smoke includes all the aspects you’d expect from YA fiction: it is up to the teenagers to save the day, not all the adults are as trustworthy as they seem, and there is a girl torn between two boys (one kind, sweet, caring, the other bold and abrupt, the “bad boy”). Perhaps with this in mind, Smoke is more suited to the younger audience than a wizened old lady* like myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy reading this book, but it just fell short of the mark for me and so I can’t wax lyrical about it as much as I’d like to. Vyleta is a very good writer, but he just couldn’t capture me with Smoke.

Thanks heaps to Hachette New Zealand for my review copy.

 *not quite, but some days it feels like it!