Smoke | Author: Dan Vyleta | Rating: 8 / 11 |
The past decade’s increased interest in the Steampunk aesthetic has led to a resurgence of alternative history literature. Readers can choose anything from Abraham Lincoln fighting zombies, to Nazis fighting the Allies with the help of their trained dinosaurs. It is certainly an eclectic trend, but this sort of reverse-nostalgia represents a curiosity about why things worked out the way they did – and what might have happened had things been different. In his new novel, Smoke, Dan Vyleta examines the possibility of an isolationist Victorian England strangled by its own strict, problematic sense of virtue and morality.
In Vyleta’s reimagining of the world, England’s social structure is divided over the issue of smoke. Smoke acts as a visual representation of people’s passion; the more one smokes, the less disciplined – and, therefore, the more ‘evil’ – they are. Members of the upper class gentry are trained from their childhoods to suppress their emotions and not smoke. Supposedly, their unmarked skin and pristine bed sheets are signs of God’s favor, making them the only people who will be admitted into Heaven. The lower classes, on the other hand, smoke frequently. Their passions have literally polluted London, turning it into a dense, dangerous city covered in the blackest of England’s Soot. However, things are not, of course, as straightforward as they seem. Being born into the upper class does not preclude one from emotion or passion, and learning not to smoke comes with its own detrimental consequences. And smoke has not been around since the beginning of time. In spite of Parliament’s attempts to rewrite the nation’s history, evidence still exists of a time before smoke, suggesting that it is instead a sort of infectious disease that has nothing to do with divine favor at all. The story’s main protagonists – three school-age teenagers by the names of Thomas, Charlie, and Livia – must struggle with the evidence of their own emotions and desires, sorting out whether or not their passions make them ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Smoke’s long, drawn-out plot is rather intricate, and requires a good deal of patience on the part of its readers. There are quite a few ex-positional chapters where nothing much happens at all. However, Vyleta has a talent for maintaining his narrative tension even throughout these sections of the book, and in spite of a number of false endings, all is satisfactorily resolved in the end. The inevitable love triangle between Thomas, Charlie, and Livia ends with a refreshingly unexpected twist, and if the story’s characters tend to list towards well-known archetypes, they are archetypes that work very well in concert with one another. At times, it feels as though the story would have been better served as a series; certain plot threads, such as the dark transformation of Livia’s murderous half-brother, Julian, are given short-shrift in favor of the main storyline. Vyleta’s decision to alternate between various first and third person narrations is also somewhat jarring at times. Overall, though, he is a masterful writer who paints a vivid, fascinating picture of Victorian England’s strict morality from a unique point of view. Saying that Victorian society was repressed is hardly new, but watching characters literally choke on their unvented emotions is certainly a powerful way of getting the point across. Vyleta juxtaposes the Victorian ideal (Grendel, a monstrously angelic man who does not smoke and is incapable of passion) with the Victorian dread (Julian, a creature entirely twisted and corrupted by his own passions), suggesting that the safest and most natural place lies somewhere in between. In the end, we are offered a tantalizing suggestion of a reimagined Victorian era, where people give free reign to their passions and, as Livia’s revolutionary mother puts it, “God is reborn.”
Historical fiction fans looking for something a little different would do well to add this book to their lists. Smoke is a refreshing take on an old subject, and – perhaps ironically? – is a breath of fresh air in a heavily traversed genre.