Book 88: Smoke



"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. Sometimes you can lie quite outrageously and find yourself spared. Everyone knows the feeling, knows it from childhood: of being questioned by your mother, or your governess, by the house tutor; of articulating a lie, pushing it carefully past the threshold of your lips, your palms sweaty, your guts coiled into knots, your chin raised in false confidence; and then, the sweet balm of relief when the Smoke does not come."

Dates read: September 10-14, 2016

Rating: 5/10

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one there whose trust in a person that seemed well-founded turned around and bit them straight in the tuchus. Thankfully, it hasn't happened to me in a while, but I'm sure we've all been burned a time or two by someone who turned out to be not what they seemed. If high school alone doesn't teach you that nice-seeming people can be actually pretty awful (some of us ourselves had our moments of being pretty awful in high school), life always seems to get around to that one at some point. Wouldn't it be nice if there was an easy way to tell who was a good person and who wasn't?

Dan Vyleta's Smoke presents us with an alternative reality historical fiction. In the novel's world, during the Middle Ages, humans evolved a gland inside our livers that produces Smoke...actual, literal smoke that escapes the body (mostly through the pores, as well as the mouth and nose) when someone sins. Well, it's more complicated than that, but that's how we're introduced to it anyways. Aristocrats send their offspring to exclusive schools to learn to control their thoughts and feelings and the resultant Smoke, but the cities, like London (in and around which this book is set), are just thick with it.

At first it seems like an English boarding school book: we're introduced to best friends Charlie and Thomas and resident bully Julius. Thomas and Charlie are a bit of an odd couple: while Charlie is fundamentally decent and well-liked for his openness and good nature, Thomas is proud and defensive, a permanent outsider who can't get his head around the idea that letting well enough alone might be a virtue. We're introduced to their professors and other school leadership, and get a sense of the politics of this world, so similar but different than our own. But when the boys go to visit a relative of Thomas's for Christmas, they find themselves (and Thomas' cousin, Livia) much, much deeper in complicated moral and theological debates than they ever could have imagined.

Up until about three quarters of the way through the book, I was really liking it. Vyleta builds an intricate world and creates characters who hold our interest (the fact that he rotates perspectives fairly frequently helps keep it fresh and give us new information about the world they live in). But then...it feels like he's really trying to raise the stakes super high to give us a big dramatic finale, but he raises them so high that it becomes completely over-the-top and any actual emotional impact it might make is blunted. The book has some similarities in concept to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series (a longtime favorite of mine), and the ending feels reminiscent in a way, but instead of three books worth of storytelling to get us really invested in the outcome, he tries to shove it all into one. It doesn't work.

And since I was pulled out of the story at the end by the ridiculous quality it took on, it made me see other plot issues that I'd had issues with. One of the most glaring, to me, was that while there were several references made to Smoke differing in color and quality according to the underlying emotion that produced it, it was never actually laid out what corresponded to what. I had an e-ARC (electronic advanced reader's copy) so maybe that was changed in the final printing, but I found that personally bothersome. At the end of the day, this is about 75% of a good book but 25% of a pretty bad one. I wouldn't recommend it, but I wouldn't warn anyone away from it either.

Tell me, blog friends...does an iffy ending derail a book for you, too?

One year ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita In Tehran

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