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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

An Uninhibited Investigation Of The Nature Of Evil

Smoke: A Novel - Dan Vyleta

Set in an alternative nineteenth century England where there seems to have been no Restoration after the Civil War and Puritanism is triumphant, Vyleta’s novel depicts a highly-constrained society in which any kind of sin, whether  actual or mental, creates physical smoke that pours forth from people’s bodies, betraying their inner motives.

 

It’s a divided world: the aristocracy do not smoke, and this is the justification for their right to rule. By contrast the lower classes live in a constant miasma of filth. Of course the real reason for the aristocracy’s lack of smoke has nothing to do with virtue and the truth begins to emerge when the protagonists, two teenage boys, boarders at an elite boarding school, and the daughter of an aristocrat with liberal leanings, become unwittingly involved in a revolutionary plot

 

This is a dense and dark novel that owes much to Philip Pullman though its a over-arching narrative is both more coherent than Pullman’s and altogether less joyful. It’s a novel of ideas above all else, studded with references to philosophy and history, sometimes venturing into territory which its target YA audience might find challenging, particularly when  the personality of the villain who is in thrall to a drug compounded of soot from the darkest and most heinous of sins, begins to disintegrate completely and his thoughts descend into a Joycean stream-of-consciousness:

 

A tremendous tour-de-force, Smoke is a brave and uninhibited investigation of the nature of evil, and an extraordinarily powerful work of the imagination. Vyleta has announced himself as a writer of exceptional talent. I just wonder who exactly is his intended audience.