5 stars · Book Reviews · Books · Dan Vyleta · Hope in Darkness · Literature Analysis · Uncategorized

Smoke {Book Review}

 

 

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Wow. Magnificent. Oh my goodness gracious me. I was blown away by the utter magnificence of this book – I think it could even replace my beloved The Lord of the Rings as my favourite book of all time?? I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to completely process everything, but then a good book is one that captivates you every time you read, for years to come, isn’t it?

Anna’s rating: 5 stars

 

Summary

Thomas Argyle, Charlie Cooper, and Livia Naylor live in a world not unlike Dicken’s Victorian England. In fact, Dan Vyleta begins with a quote from the Master Author’s novel Dombey and Son:

“Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portion of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them … could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation!”

(Beginning a section of a book with a quote from Dickens or Dostoevsky or Dante or one of those other great authors is my new favourite thing.)

That quote really summarizes the setting of the novel. In this world, any baser emotion, whether that be lust or anger (or even joy), causes a human being to emit Smoke. The Smoke is seen as a sign of one’s fallen state – therefore, the common people live in Smoke, the aristocracy using Smokelessness as a sign of their right to rule. (Of course, they are just able to hide their Smoke because they have the money to do so – nothing to do with morality.) The Smoke is therefore highly entangled with both religion and politics. In the boarding school which Thomas and Charlie attend, the slightest sign of Smoke brings great punishment upon the unfortunate boy whose clothes are found stained with the soot which will not disappear. However, the two boys soon begin to learn that everything they have been taught is a lie and there are deeper, darker secrets to be found in the streets of London.

Some Thoughts

I know some readers found the book dull because of the asides where the politics of the plot situation are discussed, but to any reader of Victor Hugo, such a passage is not a hard task. 🙂 Other readers have complained that some of these asides were difficult and confusing to read – perhaps due to the switch from third person to first person or the dream-, Kafka-like language, but I found these sections to be quite delightful. This novel just seems to have everything – humour, family, the meaning of life, love, and sin… Vyleta’s novel is a dark and twisty read in some parts, but it is all so philosophically stimulating and challenging that it was all such a treat.

THE LITERARY/HISTORICAL ALLUSIONS. Vyleta quotes Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Hegel among others. The Bible is mentioned quite a bit – for example, {SPOILER} Thomas learns that those in hierarchy have rewritten much of the Bible to suit their own purposes. {END SPOILER} There are at least two characters who are named after either a historical or literary character, which embodies or explains their character (if I was going to do a character study, which I am unable to write at the moment).

Usually I throw up in my mouth when I hear about the love triangle trope. I didn’t mind the Simon-Clary-Jace relationship in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series too much, although there was still some eye rolling. But the love triangle of this book? MY GOODNESS. I’m all signed up. THAT is how you write a love triangle, folks. Wow. I never thought a love triangle would ever win me over. But this one did.

I love all the characters of this novel. I really want to know more about Julian Spencer (a minor character, I suppose). His aura is of such madness and darkness that just two sections of his point of view after his fall are NOT enough. Livia especially intrigues me because I feel like I relate to her the most. When the readers first meet her, she is a young lady who is extremely strict upon herself, not allowing herself the least emotion. But as the novel progresses – and especially after she begins to fall in love with Thomas – Livia begins to realize while there is something passionate, dark, intimate, and dirty about emotion… there are some emotions which are very good, and emotion as a whole is also very very human.

I am a big fan of books where the people in authority (especially the government) have nefarious purposes hidden under the surface – because it tends to be very true in today’s society, although most people don’t seem to realize how deep and dark their plans are. Here this authority seems to be the boarding school teachers, who actually have positions in government, and the secret police. It isn’t entirely clear what these people wish to accomplish, but I believe a good book shouldn’t give you all the answers. I look forward to looking for more clues for an answer in my next read. I love the fact that Vyleta’s book ends on a complicated note – that I’m not entirely sure if the protagonists’ choice was the right one. Why? Because I think that’s exactly how life is – we never really seem to know if the choices we make are right, until it’s all over and the Smoke has cleared.

 

Free Will and Emotion

I think what makes me love this book so much is the absolute importance of free will. Thomas, Charlie, and Livia have grown up in a world where Smoke was seen as pure evil. However, they learn that that’s not really the case. The Smoke can surround a murderer. But a husband and wife will breathe out smoke. So might a mother and daughter. The Smoke embodies emotion – and not all emotion is evil. Without Smoke, one might be as the little girl who inflicts pain upon herself every time she feels any Smoke arise within her – or Livia’s father, who went mad by suppressing his own Smoke.

I find one of the most interesting cases to be Grendel, a man who has been unable to Smoke from a young age. Grendel is the name of the monster who attacks King Hrothgar’s mead hall in the well-known Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. (Oh, yeah, did I say that I  absolutely LOVE how Vyleta’s novel contains so many literary allusions??) The Grendel of this story is given this name because the others see him as a monster, an anomaly who is absolutely alien to the rest of society. When Charlie first sees Grendel, he calls him an angel because of his purity. Surprisingly, Grendel sees his state in a quite different matter. In one of the most intriguing scenes in this novel which foreshadows what will follow, Grendel responds to Charlie’s declaration that he is an angel:

“I fear I am one of those who stood at the edge of heaven, looking down. Dreaming about their Fall.”

At first, this statement quite shocked me, but after finishing the novel and reflecting about the work in its entirety, it makes sense to me. Grendel is a good man, but he is forced to be that way. He is unable to sin, to Smoke, and therefore, he is also unable to feel real human emotion. He has no free will.

 

The End {Obviously, Spoilers}

Usually I wouldn’t talk about the ending of a book in a review like this, but I think it’s very important. Charlie, Thomas, and Livia have managed to stop the villain (is she really a villain, though? Or just a poor woman trying to avenge her husband’s fate?) from unleashing Smoke upon the world. The three youths stand in the sewers, looking upon the the remnants of what had been years of work to fulfill this plan. The atmosphere is strained and everything seems rather anticlimactic. But, suddenly, the novel takes on a shocking turn – the protagonists decide to release the Smoke, anyway, and introduce the world to pure, raw emotion. As the novel closes, Charlie wonders what he should do – he loves Livia, but so does Thomas. And yet Livia chooses both of them.

Wow. Yeah, I know.

I’m going to draw upon a few passages to try help explain how I see this ending. Earlier in the novel, after giving a beggar some money, Thomas stops and speaks with the man. He asks the beggar whether he would make the Smoke disappear if he could, the man seems rather indifferent. He does not see the absence or presence of the Smoke as making much different in his life. The beggar goes on to complain about the rich but then end with a rather touching statement about his baby daughter. “You may be the wisest man in the whole of London,” Thomas says.

This scene struck me because it reminds me of Shakespeare’s fools – the comedians who actually end up being the voice of wisdom in the plays, if only the rich would listen. The beggar appears to be a good man – and yet he would not get rid of this entity whom clergymen speak of as pure sin (and yet, these supposed holy men spend money upon the sweets which soak up their Smoke and hide it from their parishioners). That is definitely something to think about.

“Don’t underestimate its [the world’s] darkness,” Thomas tells Charlie, as they are about to make their final decision. “Every argument that draws a knife, every man beaten, every woman forced: it’ll all be our fault.” As a child who was told that he was destined for darkness, as a young man who has killed another in self-defense, he is the one of the three who realizes this truth the most. But Charlie also realizes the flip side of the coin – if they do not unleash the Smoke, the world will remain as it is. Young children will hurt torture themselves for showing any emotion. Prisoners will be forced to roll cigarettes so that the rich may enjoy a little sin in private. “… every year that passes without change or hope. That too will be our fault,” Charlie notes.

The love triangle is definitely the most problematic part of the ending for me, but I also find it the most intriguing. I am going to ignore that a threesome could ever be a thing (because, honestly, I don’t want to think about it). Instead, I’m going to take an aside to explain my reasoning. I recently read a certain section from a Theology of the Body for Teens book that struck me as interesting. The author was attempting to address the question – will there be sex in heaven? For him, the answer was no – because there will be no need for it. The union with God and each other – of pure bliss – will be much greater, much more satisfying than sexual union on earth. This is exactly what I was thinking when I read this ending. As Charlie and Thomas and Livia join hands and walk off into the new world they have created, I can’t help but think of the hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, running in the sunshine, naked, while they wait for Tom Bombadil to bring them new clothes. From the criticism I’ve read, others appear to agree with me that this scene only speaks of innocence – like a world before the Fall of Adam and Eve. The ending of Vyleta’s novel speaks of the end of a Victorian era – but it also seems to me to symbolize a heaven of sorts, where individuals can be in perfect communion with each other, just like they were before the Fall.


Anna is a university student who is just about to finish her spring short story writing course. She is very excited to be able to spend the rest of the summer reading and writing.

 

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