The publishers of this book (at least, I’m assuming it was the publisher’s idea to do so) have been selling it as the new “Harry Potter meets his dark materials” book, ensuring – I think – that most people will be interested in reading it (so, good strategy) but also will come to it with expectations going through the roof.
I think they must have been aware of this while coming up with teir marketing strategy, and therefore won’t feel guilty about being (maybe just a touch) over critical with it. In short, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not His dark materials. It’s okay.
What it is, well, it is set in a fantastic version of Victorian England, where sins, or pulsions, or maybe even strong emotions, are visible as a smoke coming out of people’s bodies.
The story opens -quite masterfully – in an Eton-like boarding school, suitably dark and gloomy, where the students participate in a sort of moral tribunal (based on smoke). You meet Thomas, a boy with a dark past and even darker intensity, his friend Charlie, very posh, very proper, and a collection of somber and enigmatic headmasters. It is very victorian, thrilling and lyrical, has some of the magic of hogwarts and the premise is indeed good.
As Christmas approaches, the boys leave school to visit Thomas’ Aunt, and go on a journey to find answers to their questions about smoke: is it really sin, is it something more, how have the richest managed to control it, and from there the novel weakens.
Partly because it tries to be to many things at once: This world, where smoke is present, must be built and explained, with lengthly parallels and rewritings of the bible, tales of explorations to lands inhabited by various “non smoking savages”, and its political structure and class struggles must be exposed, also at lengths, all the while with a relatively fast plot (everythings happens in a week or two), filled with increasingly far fetched coincidences that beg the question “do they actually have a plan or do they just bump into each other repeatedly?” (which is the plot-level of pride and prejudice, by the way, so not allways a problem but you better have a few Elisabeth Bennet if it is the case), everything interwoven with metaphysical discourses about smoke, from every protagonist.
I suppose, if you want to stand aside Philip Pullman’s trilogy, you should give yourself time and space to build a world. Here, there’s not enough of both. And while the central premise, smoke and its meaning, is promising, it seems overused as a plot device and “question of interest” and turns out to be everything and anything: sin, anger, passion, pulsions, it is hard to tell. You would have enough with it, but Vyleta somehow decided to add class struggles (and class privileges, and guilt) into the mix, and – as it is a YA novel – a love triangle (stereotypical, but then which love triangle isn’t), teenagers growing up and finding themselves, women who are all seductresses and mysterious (but never with the degree of complexity of Pullman’s Ms Coulter) and…, well, a lot.
So everything is sketched – there’s no time for more, and it is a shame, because it could have been better. Still, it’s a pleasant book, and it passes the time in public buses around dusty small towns in Myanmar. I could have said I didn’t ask for more, but it made me ask for a lot more, comparing itself to such giant books. Your fault, then, I’ll leave smoke and return to dust and quidditch matches. After all, I don’t need any other novel that is like those two, we are lucky enough to live in a world where they exist.