What would it be when you took the Dust of His Dark Materials and covered it in sin? That would be Dan Vyleta’s Smoke.
Mr. Vyleta has written a Dickensian tale of class structure, ethical theology, and coming-of-age in the most naked and brutal of ways.
What if every sinful thought and compulsion you had were visible – breathable – by those around you? Contagious. Smoke of different weights and colors and intractable as spilled ink? And as a high-born citizen, you were conditioned through discipline to resist – to keep your whites clean and your breath fresh? Now, imagine that you learned the adults around you were cheating…and that some of them had plans to use Smoke as a weapon. One faction wants control of society, and another to unravel it.
In Pullman’s series, Dust and the Knife and prophecy are compelling hooks to draw you along. Someone is always being chased and someone is always in danger. The wonder of the story is bright and gold and glittering as Dust itself. The longing we all have for a daemon of our own, the bears, and the witches, all draw it closer to our hearts.
Vyleta has done the same, but in reverse. Smoke is a horror story. It is dark as sin and the wonder the reader experiences is part revulsion and part secret thrill at the scare. While the protagonists are teen-aged, the story itself is absolutely grown. The hanging in the square where the mysterious stranger scrapes the Soot from the murderess’s tongue with a knife is unforgettable – and just as wondrous as Pullman’s battle bear.
And, as Pullman in His Dark Materials, Vyleta struggles at times with pacing and often loses focus of which character’s voice needs to be most heard. There’s a bit of head-hopping, and the end swirls in circles before gravity catches and pulls the three protagonists into their final dance with danger. It is forgiven – in both cases – because of the compelling prose and the mystery that must be answered.
The prose is unlike Pullman, though. I felt it had the flavor of Sarah Waters, although I’ll admit it’s been several years since I’ve read her masterful work. At times the writing was like a hand holding me back from charging forward to pull aside the curtain. I wanted to get at the answers immediately, and the syntax itself required me to sit and listen instead. It was a valuable exercise, and one I appreciated.
Smoke is a discussion book. I was left desperate to share what I’d read and all the secret doors in my mind it had opened. This to me is the best kind of writing: one that expands the idea of how religion and philosophy and humanity coalesce and mingle – like a breath you didn’t realize you were holding.