Perhaps you think it’s easy to spot beneficiaries of wealth and privilege in today’s society, but it is a lot easier in the late-Victorian England conjured by Dan Vyleta in Smoke, an inventive quasi-dystopian fantasy. The aristocracy are distinguished from the lower classes by one significant and immediately noticeable trait: The lower classes emit thick black smoke—or, as it appears here, Smoke.
This is an England in which babies turn black with Smoke and the resulting Soot minutes after they’re born; it’s the “dark plume of shame.” Think a bad thought or tell a falsehood, and tendrils of Smoke will alert the world to your misdeed.
The novel begins at a boarding school in which 200 upper-class boys are receiving a “moral education” to cure them of the evil they are born with. Two of them become best friends: wealthy Charlie Cooper and Thomas Argyle, whom one of the school’s young prefects, Julius Spencer, suspects of harboring a reprehensible secret.
At Christmas, the headmaster asks Charlie to accompany Thomas to the home of Baron Naylor, Thomas’ uncle. Keep an eye on Thomas, the headmaster tells Charlie, but he doesn’t say why. What follows is a shocking visit in which both boys become enamored of the baron’s daughter, Livia; discover experiments conducted with the Soot of prisoners; learn the mysterious properties of a tin of sweets; and uncover the real intentions of not only Julius but also the school’s masters.
From the houses of Parliament to London streets dense with costermongers and their handcarts, Smoke is an action-packed adventure that raises provocative questions about religion versus reason. As one character says in the second half of the book, Smoke isn’t necessarily evil. One person’s wickedness is another person’s humanity. That’s the kind of subtle observation that makes a smart thriller easy to spot.