I got a Net-Galley copy of this to review before its publication which is this coming Thursday, July 7th. The blurb reads like it might be for older children, since the protagonists are boys in boarding school, but it’s not. It’s definitely not for children.
‘The laws of Smoke are complex. Not every lie will trigger it. A fleeting thought of evil may pass unseen. Next thing you know its smell is in your nose. There is no more hateful smell in the world than the smell of Smoke . . .’
If sin were visible and you could see people’s anger, their lust and cravings, what would the world be like?
Smoke opens in a private boarding school near Oxford, but history has not followed the path known to us. In this other past, sin appears as smoke on the body and soot on the clothes. Children are born carrying the seeds of evil within them. The ruling elite have learned to control their desires and contain their sin. They are spotless.
It is within the closeted world of this school that the sons of the wealthy and well-connected are trained as future leaders. Among their number are two boys, Thomas and Charlie. On a trip to London, a forbidden city shrouded in smoke and darkness, the boys will witness an event that will make them question everything they have been told about the past. For there is more to the world of smoke, soot and ash than meets the eye and there are those who will stop at nothing to protect it . . .
This is a strange book, cleverly written, but with something about it that made me feel perpetually confused, or, rather, that I was one step behind understanding what was really going on. Despite the main protagonists being children, this is a book for adults, more engrossing than The Night Circus, but equally bizarre in its approach to alternative worlds, in this case, a pseudo-Victorian England where Smoke is everywhere, and displays everything about you.
The narrative shifts between characters, but thankfully the author labels each section so you know immediately whose eyes and ears we are using now. There is some description that envelopes you, and some that holds you at arms’ length – I didn’t know whether this was because of the character or whether it was just ease of writing about the locations in question. The sequences underground, especially with extended periods without light, are brilliantly described.
There’s a lot of cruelty in the story, and a great deal of philosophy; this is an alternative world with rewritten history, banned literature (especially plays), and no imported technology. How it all works together, whether the various factions should be allowed to reform society to their own world view, or whether things should be allowed to develop, are all themes that resonate with our reality at present.
It’s clever, and intriguing, and draws you back; even though it was a slow read there was never any danger I might abandon it. I found it a puzzle while I read it, but it did not leave me with food for thought, so it’s not that clever. It’s a gothic thriller in some ways, and could do very well in the book market. I gave it four stars (3 for Goodreads).