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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

NEW NOVEL: Dan Vyleta: "Smoke"

Author:  Dan Vyleta 
Series:  Smoke 
Plot Type:  Alternate-World Fantasy (Steampunk without the steam)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Doubleday (5/2016)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURBS                    
Blurb from
     Welcome to a Victorian England unlike any other you have experienced before.  Here, wicked thoughts (both harmless and hate-filled) appear in the air as telltale wisps of Smoke.

     Young Thomas Argyle, a son of aristocracy, has been sent to an elite boarding school.  Here he will be purged of Wickedness, for the wealthy do not Smoke.  When he resists a sadistic headboy's temptations to Smoke, a much larger struggle beyond the school walls is revealed.  Shortly thereafter, on a trip to London, Thomas and his best friend witness events that make them begin to question everything they have been taught about Smoke. 

     And thus the adventure begins... You will travel by coach to a grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories; where young love blossoms; and where a tumultuous relationship between a mother and her children is the crucible in which powerful passions are kindled, and dangerous deeds must be snuffed out in a desperate race against time.

Blurb from Front-Cover Flap:
     “The laws of Smoke are complex. Not every lie will trigger it. A fleeting thought of evil may pass unseen; a fib, an excuse, a piece of flattery. Next thing you know its smell is in your nose. There is no more hateful smell in the world than the smell of smoke.” 

     England. A century ago, give or take a few years…An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real.

     An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government Three young people who learn everything they’ve been taught is a lie—knowledge tat could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and cold-hearted scientists. Ruder. A London filled with danger and wonder A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn’t clear.

     This is the world of Smoke, a narrative tour de force, a tale of Dickensian intricacy and ferocious imaginative power, richly atmospheric and intensely suspenseful.

    Vyleta introduces this novel with a quotation in which Charles Dickens muses about how terrible the revelation would be if the "moral pestilence"—evil thoughts and emotions—residing deep within the human soul could be seen with the naked eye. Vyleta imagines this evil as Smoke, and the mythology of that Smoke forms the basis for all of the actions and interactions in the novel, which is set in an alternate late-Victorian England.

     Smoke and its residue, Soot, are all-important to the aristocracy because members of the nobility are not supposed to Smoke—not ever. Part of the educational process for highborn young people is to learn to be able to control or suppress their Smoke.  (For example, they study the Four Books of Smoke and take courses like Smoke and Ethics.) The problem is that Smoke's cause-effect process is unreliable. On occasion, you might be able to tell a lie without raising even a tiny wisp of Smoke. But on another occasion, you may sneak a cookie or laugh at someone else's misfortune and "next thing you know its smell is in your nose." Smoke is characterized according to a taxonomy of forty-three varieties. But as one teacher explains, "It is more difficult to establish the precise cause for each type of Smoke…The thoroughly corrupt breed darker, denser Smoke. Once a person's moral sickness is sufficiently advanced, all actions are colored by its stain," even the most innocent.

     Vyleta sets the novel in Oxford at a school for highborn boys. The school has seven masters (teachers), but only three of them are important to the plot. "Each of them, it is said, [are] entangled in affairs that reach from school to Parliament and Crown."

     Renfrew, Master of Smoke and Ethics: He is in charge of all of the moral education of the boys; seemingly a reasonable, intelligent man.

     Swinburne, Master of Religion: He is a by-the-book religious fanatic when it comes to the evils of Smoke. He used to be in charge of the moral education of the boys until Renfrew's post was created a year ago, and he resents his loss of authority.

     Trout, the headmaster: He is a master politician with a mysterious past.

     Smoke doesn't just rise in the air and dissipate. It soaks into your clothing, into your nose and mouth and skin. At the school, the headmaster regularly checks the boys' dirty clothing on laundry day for soot, which can be analyzed to determine how severe the sin was that caused it. Punishment for having unclean thoughts and actions varies according to the severity of the sin. But without fail, punishment of one kind or another always comes. Students with major transgressions are called to the master's study and strapped into a leather chair. "The boys call it the dentist's chair. No teeth are pulled, but the truth…has to be dug up by the roots." Students are regularly pulled aside by Dr. Renfrew to be interrogated with personal questions designed to root out suppressed Smokewith appropriate punishments directly following each session. 

     The aristocracy uses their lack of Smoke to justify their power over the lower classes, who Smoke freely and who live in Sooty, Smoke-filled villages and cities (like London). Smoking goes unpunished among the lower and middle classes because they are considered by the aristocracy to be morally weak and unclean. As one highborn boy muses, "Burghers may smoke, once in a while.  One does not expect better of them." The aristocrats tell themselves that their absence of Smoke means that they are pure-hearted and innately good, while the lower classes are filled with sin. Obviously this is Vyleta's satiric interpretation of how the one-percenters of our real world view the 97 per cent who make up the majority of the population. They see themselves as the omnipotent good guys who always know exactly what's best for the rest of us, but behind the scenes, they are just as sinful as the poorest peasant in the land. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, Vyleta pounds home this theme with sledgehammer force. In the end, though, the overall theme of the novel is that Smoking—showing passion—is not a sign of evil, but a part of being human. In fact, if Smoke is suppressed, madness follows. 

     The three main charactersall schoolboys from wealthy familiesare introduced in Part One of the novel: 

    Thomas Argyle is an introvert who has a tragic family history. He can't stop himself from Smoking and frequently finds himself with a black tongue, picking bits of Soot from between his teeth. His father killed a man, and Thomas has always been told that he has a evil, sinful soul that will eventually overcome all his efforts to suppress his innate darkness.

    Charlie Cooper is the future Earl of Shaftesbury, and he is the most innocent and vulnerable of the three. He and Thomas are best friends, even though Charlie realizes that Thomas has evil within him. Charlie is basically the good guy of the group. He rarely Smokes and generally serves as a calm peace keeper.

    Julius Spencer is a bully who adroitly hides his evil core of black Smoke. He is the villain of the book, seemingly drawn willingly into his Smoky world of violence and vengeance.

     This being a book about teen-age boys, there is also a beautiful girl: Livia Naylor, the aristocratic daughter of a mother who is a rebellious scientist and a father who has been driven mad by his obsessive need for purity of thought. Livia forms close personal relationships with both Thomas and Charlie, but their "love triangle" is quite different from the usual one found in YA novels. Livia lives on an isolated estate with her mother and her crazed father and spends most of her time working hard to suppress all passionate emotion so that she doesn't Smoke.

     Vyleta tells his story from various perspectives, primarily through the eyes of Thomas and Charlie, but also Renfrew, Trout, and many other major and minor characters. He divides the book into six parts, each of which is then divided into 6-10 chapters (except for Part Six, which has only one). Part One ("School") introduces the main characters and most of the Smoke mythology.

                 MY REVIEW                    
    The story begins in the school dormitory one night when Julius sets up a vicious lottery of interrogation and singles out Thomas in order to publicly humiliate him about his family history. When Thomas attacks Julius in a fit of rage, both boys exude clouds of the blackest Smoke and are called before a faculty tribunal. Thomas has always feared that he inherited the disease of evil from his father, so he fears for his future. Julius is furious at Thomas for setting off his own Smoky display. 

     Days later, the schoolboys go on a day trip to London where they view the hanging of a woman whose Smoking is so severe that her clothing bursts into flame and her passions infect the crowd of onlookers with a virulent wave of violent emotion. As the boys get their first taste of really evil Smoke, it affects each one differently. At the scene of the hanging, Thomas and Charlie—separately—glimpse two strange people in the crowded square. Thomas sees a hooded person scraping and carrying off the Soot from the hanged woman's dead body. Charlie sees a crooked-neck man who exudes absolutely no Smoke, even in the presence of the hanged woman's infectious black cloud. The boys are curious about both, and they are also curious about a mysterious shipment of hard candy that arrives for the teachers. And then there are those strange cigarettes that Julius always carries with him. What's going on here?

     In the second section, Thomas and Charlie go off to visit Thomas's wealthy aunt and uncle (Lord and Lady Naylor, Livia's parents), where they soon learn that there is much more to Smoke than they are being taught in their oh-so-proper school. The boys break into Lady Naylor's mysterious laboratory, where she experiments with Soot, and begin to believe that everything they have learned about Smoke is a lie. Then, Julius turns up and the mood quickly turns very dark. Having dealt with the Smoky exposition in section one, Vyleta winds up his establishment of the mythology at this point and lets the action begin.

     In the final sections of the book, the trio of protagonists (Thomas, Charlie, and Livia) go on the run in the world of the commoners—the peasants who routinely Smoke with emotion and passion. Here, Vyleta uses his lower-class characters—in this case, miners—to lecture the three aristocrats (and the reader) on why and how the aristocrats use Smoke to control the masses while hiding their own Smoky sins. He also inserts the inevitable heavy-handed epiphany scenes in which his three aristocrats realize that the lower-class people who help them and hide them from their enemies are good, heart-of-gold people, not evil sinners as they have always been taught to believe. 

     Eventually all of the action moves to Smoky, filthy London, where all of the conflict is resolved in the final chapters, not through the trail of clues that Vyleta carefully drops like bread crumbs in the earlier chapters, but in a series of mini-lectures that include a lot of sermonizing about social politics, class conflicts, anti-intellectualism, and science. Some characters from earlier chapters insist on preaching about their radical political beliefs, while others deliver lengthy explanations about the physics of Soot and Smoke. All of this expositional material is necessary to the unveiling of the solutions to the plot's mysteries, but they are presented in unwieldy expositional chunks that periodically bring the action to a complete halt and drain the life out of what would otherwise have been a highly compelling climax. I read the first half of the book quickly and with great delight, but the final chapters were slow going.

     Even with the weaknesses I have mentioned, this novel has an inventive plot and a fascinating set of lead characters. Vyleta is particularly successful with his development of his three protagonists. Each has a different relationship with Smoke than the others, resulting in inner turmoil that directly affects their interpersonal relationships in unexpected ways. At one point, Thomas muses about the difference between Charlie and himself, "Charlie's soul is knit for hope. Mine's stuck in the mud of the things that may go wrong." Later, he explains that difference to Livia, "The Smoke...I'm not like Charlie. It makes a home in me." Livia, who struggles with her own Smoky passions looks at Charlie and sees in him, "The kind of face saints sometimes have...A face so little guarded, so unmarked by Discipline, it taunts her, terrifies her. What sort of creature is he that he can afford to live so naked and not sin?" The villain, Julius, is more of a stereotype—too much unexplained evil with little examination of its roots—but still a great catalyst in the kids-on-the-run chapters as he pursues them with his vicious dog. Although much of the conflict is resolved, there is plenty of room for more action, intrigue, and romance for these characters, so this may be the first book in a series.

     Here are links to two different sources of excerpts from Smoke: Click HERE to read a 24-page excerpt (chapters 3 and 4 from section 1). Click HERE to go to read or listen to excerpts on the novel's page on by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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