Smoke is a fascinating and beautifully written novel.
Alternate histories are often a more playful cousin of tales set in the future. They share a similar backbone, which is to take a familiar world and distort it for one reason or another, usually to demonstrate either the potential of humankind to soar or to destroy. While futuristic tales have always been popular and have flourished as of late, particularly within the realm of the dystopian subgenre, alternate histories have remained more niche.
There are superlative works within the alternate history canon, from Philip K. Dick’s dark and necessary The Man in the High Castle to Michael Chabon’s hysterical The Yiddish Policeman’s Union to Susanna Clarke’s ingenuous, exhaustive Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But it’s also a tricky realm to write in. Setting a tale in a warped version of a world that readers already know makes it harder for them to suspend their disbelief. On top of that, changing history demands a well-researched knowledge of history. And finally, there is the question of why?, a question recently raised rather publicly when the creators of TV’s “Game of Thrones” announced their plans to make a series called “Confederate,” which imagines a world where the South won the American Civil War.
Dan Vyleta’s fantasy-thriller Smoke is an alternate history of late 19th/early 20th century London, and its justification for existing is both commercially and creatively apparent; it takes the uniquely British magic of the Harry Potter and Northern Lights series and adds layers of Victorian horror and Dickensian wordiness to make it stimulating for adults who grew up on the Rowling and Pullman series. This is a strategy that worked wonders for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series and others, but Vyleta takes the concept and makes it his own by adding a unique element to wrap his tale around: the novel’s eponymous Smoke. This Smoke is a grimy substance that leaks from the skin of supposed sinners. It’s an ingenious plot device, particularly as commentary on Victorian and Edwardian England, where society was incredibly prudish yet also disgusting due to the sooty industrial air and superstition against bathing.
The Smoke is also a clever pathway for Vyleta to comment on class, and he does so with humor and candor, explaining how the upper classes are appalled by Smoke while people in the lower class not only Smoke more often but also are far less bothered by it. This class conflict drives Smoke’s plot forward as it finds the novel’s central duo, Thomas and Charlie, at an austerely proper school that instructs boys to remain Smoke-free. When they venture from the confines of their school to Smoke-filled London, this sets up all sorts of contrasts, some of which Vyleta exploits and others that he subverts for surprise.
The only problem with Smoke is that it feels as if the plot is only just scratching the surface of the intriguing world that the author has built. Vyleta causes the problem by developing his world so fully in the beginning parts of the book before moving his focus to the interplay between his characters and the drama that unfolds there. Of course, characters are the nucleus of any novel, but it would have been more effective to have a slower rollout of world-building. Pacing the discoveries would have accelerated the reading whereas Smoke slows down a bit as it unfolds, though the plot does remain exciting and surprising. This is often an issue in beginning chapters of series, particularly those with creative worlds, and it makes one hope that Vyleta exploits the world he has created more fully in further volumes.
Ultimately, Smoke is a fascinating and beautifully written novel, and the language of the German-born Vyleta is obviously inspired by Dickens but also constantly surprising. The buoyancy of his prose is particularly effective when set against the dark and broody setting. He is obviously a talent to keep an eye on, and one hopes that the next thing he has up his sleeve is another tale set in the magical world he has created in Smoke.