I received this ebook for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This is no way affects my opinion of the book. Quotes in the following review may differ slightly from the final published version of the book.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Dickens wrote YA? Me neither, but that’s essentially what you get with Smoke.
Vyleta draws us in to his dark Victorian setting with a sinister opening scene at a boys’ boarding school. Julius, our seemingly perfect prefect, takes the role of Grand Inquisitor, questioning his fellow students until their bodies begin to physically smoke.
We have entered a fantastical Victorian era where smoke is the outward manifestation of so-called sin. Smoke is seen as evil and unbecoming, and the middle- and upper-classes hunt for ways to hide their smoke so that they may appear well-behaved and holy.
It’s this desire to overcome smoke that draws Thomas, our protagonist, and friends Charlie and Livia into a plot to…
…And I have to stop here, because I did not understand the plot at all.
What exactly was Lady Naylor trying to achieve? Charlie rightly says that even evil has to be borne of reason, and for the life of me I can’t see the reason behind Lady Naylor’s or her cronies’ actions.
A lot of the time spent reading this novel was spent baffled. A lot of this was down to the fact that it was an unpublished copy – some of the words and paragraphs ran into each other, rubber-banding me out of the action while I tried to work out what I’d missed – but the viewpoints were also hard to keep track of. It skips back and forth not only between characters’ viewpoints, but also between the first- and third-person. I was reminded all too often that I was reading a book, and consequently couldn’t fully lose myself in the story.
Apart from this chopping and changing between viewpoints and the vague explanations of not only what the characters want to do with smoke but also exactly what smoke is, the writing is first-class. I felt transported to the Victorian age; there was none of that clumsy dialogue that sometimes surfaces in historical fiction. The story kept me hooked, but the world-building confused me.
The ending left me so puzzled that my colleague actually asked me if I was OK. The characters were mediocre – smoke is supposedly irresistible to Thomas, but this was a bad case of telling and not showing. We hear constantly how there is something growing inside Thomas, how he is particularly susceptible to evil, and yet there is no evidence to back this up, except for a slightly shorter temper. Lady Naylor and Livia are extensions of each other. Charlie had more depth to him but the star of the show has to be Julius.
The best thing about this book is the villain. Julius is downright terrifying, turning from a priggish schoolboy to the stuff of nightmares in just a few chapters. He commits horrendous acts as a matter of course, and by the end of the novel is unrecognisable.
I enjoyed reading this book, and I loved the eerie tone. It was very adult for what is at its core a young adult novel, with many of the tropes that appear in contemporary YA – love triangles, for instance – but turning them on their heads. However, all I can think about when I look back on it is how often I scrunched up my nose in confusion and how I ended it thinking, ‘Huh?’
I want to give it more because the writing and the idea was good, but I was just so bemused that I’m going to have to give it 3/5.