Smoke.

I can’t remember where I first heard about Dan Vyleta’s novel Smoke, which I think falls somewhere in between the YA and adult literature genres, but I’d had it on my shopping list for a year when the paperback version appeared in June for under $10. Offering a gothic-themed setting in an alternate reality where sin is revealed as visible Smoke emanating from the sinner’s body, Smoke follows its trio of compelling characters through a physical and metaphysical journey that leads them to question everything they’ve been told by their parents, teachers, and every other moral authorities in their lives.

Set some time in the late 19th century, Smoke begins, as so many young adult books do, in a boarding school, where we meet Thomas, a volatile child with hidden rage and some sort of secret in his family background; and Charlie, his new best friend at school, a more mild-mannered, rule-abiding kid. The school is for children of the upper class, who send their kids there to learn to avoid producing Smoke – easier said than done, as it turns out – as part of the complex social hierarchy that has evolved to protect those who don’t smoke, the gentry, from those who do. The opening scene, which does a wonderful job of pulling you right into the story, sets Thomas up against his antagonist for the remainder of the book, Julius, a Malfoyesque character who runs the school’s unofficial but apparently tolerated inquisitorial squad. What appears at the start to be a conflict among boys, two good against one evil, takes a hard and unexpected right turn when they visit Thomas’s aunt and uncle over the holidays, only to find themselves plunged right into the heart of the mystery of Smoke and on a quest to try and solve it, to save Thomas’s life and perhaps overturn the entire autocracy the aristocrats have constructed with Smoke as their weapon.

Vyleta takes the story from there into some surprising places, and does well to create a panoply of opponents for the two boys and Thomas’s cousin, Lydia, as they work on unraveling the knot of Smoke. There are some agents who are clearly evil, but many others who are working at opposing purposes to the kids for independent, moral, or even banal reasons. Eventually, we need and get a showdown with the worst of the baddies, but it is not central to the book the way it is to so many YA fantasy novels. (I’ve seen it referred to in video games, especially for RPGs, as the “Kill the Big Foozle” plot device.) It’s the other stuff that makes Smoke … um, sizzle, because the varying motivations and understanding of what’s actually going on beneath the skin, literally and metaphorically, open up the characters to natural discussions about right and wrong, moral authority, and historical revisionism. The most obvious target of Vyleta’s satire is the Church – Catholic, Anglican, you pick – although much of Smoke‘s subversive subtext works quite as well when applied to the pernicious effects of classism, environmental racism, or how people respond to totalitarian regimes.

By setting up a multi-threaded conflict, Vyleta set up a delightfully unconventional ending with plenty of tension, including the big fight that some readers will demand, but also resolving other plot threads in unexpected ways, not always thoroughly (by design) but at least hinting at what the End of Smoke might entail for whole groups of people whose identities are tied to the status quo. The book itself was inspired by a line from Dickens’ Dombey and Son, but the vibe of Smoke is much more along the lines of Lev Grossman’s superb trilogy The Magicians: It’s a bit dark, but not overwhelmingly so, and there’s plenty of humor and empathy to balance out the sinister elements. It’s too well-written to call it a true YA novel, but the themes would be appropriate for teens.

Next up: I read James Gould Cozzens’ Pulitzer-winning novel Guard of Honor, and it was just so bad – boring in story and prose – that I’m not going to bother with a full review. I’m now 2/3 of the way through Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which is $2 right now for the Kindle.

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