Halfway through reading this book, I was considering telling a real life lie. I caught myself worrying my ‘smoke’ would betray me.
For that’s how tangible the magic spun in Vyleta’s world is. It’s Victorian England, but with a crucial difference: its inhabitants’ bodies emit smoke when they ‘sin.’ Sometimes light, pale plumes that can be wafted away in a second; sometimes foul smelling, bitter clouds seeping darkly from every pore.
The plot follows two friends, Charlie and Thomas, at boarding school: Charlie is so naturally kind and good that he barely smokes, Thomas can be shamefully stirred to a death-black soot by anger. It starts as a mystery, working out why Thomas smokes as he does, and develops into a quest to understand the nature, origin and meaning of the smoke itself - and, consequently, of ‘sin’.
Vyleta has a light touch with these big questions, and it’s that, combined with the subtlety and magic of his vision, that have probably inspired the comparisons to Philip Pullman. The book’s other main strength is the sweet teenage friendship between Charlie and Thomas, and the impact of a shared love interest, Livia - it may be this that drew the Harry Potter nods. But Smoke stands alone, comfortable in the Adult genre despite its teenage protagonists.
And it’s certainly gripping. Every now and again a book comes along that I’m so addicted to, I start to hate it. I resented this brilliant book, a lot. In no small part because its magic seeped into my non-reading consciousness as deeply as when I was lost in the pages.
But perhaps also because it never quite delivered on its marvellous promise. It gave enough at every turn to keep me hooked, and I was satisfied enough at the end, but I doubt any story could fully realise the dizzy heights of the wonderful world it was set in.
For me, the setting was enough. A chance to explore an intoxicating and magical alternative reality, while being grateful we escaped it: my little white lie got thorough and no plume of smoke betrayed me.
Published: 7th July 2016, W&N, Orion Publishing Group
Buy Smoke on Amazon