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Where there's Smoke'

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Novel explores a world where sin cannot be hidden

I've long been a proponent of that subset of speculative fiction known as alternate history. There's so much wonderful potential in the notion of exploring the many differences that can spin off from a single fundamental change. And if that change introduces a fantastical element, so much the better.

That's the path traveled by Dan Vyleta in his new novel 'Smoke' (Doubleday, $27.95). It's a sprawling narrative that ventures into a world where a man's relative virtue or wickedness cannot be concealed, a world where one can be marked as good or evil with a single glance.

England, a century or so ago. An England similar to the one from our history, but not quite the same, for this England is filled with Smoke.

That's capital-S Smoke, a visible and inescapable indicator of sin. Smoke (and the Soot it leaves behind) is the marker of impurity of thought and deed. It is what separates good from evil. Wickedness cannot be hidden in a world filled with Smoke.

In this world, the aristocratic upper classes do not Smoke, thus illustrating their inner virtue and right to rule. Meanwhile, the downtrodden masses are filthy with the stuff urban centers like London are filled with inescapable dark clouds. Those who are without Smoke live in the country, far removed from any potential contamination.

(It should be noted that children tend to Smoke until they come of age this fact indicates to many that children are born in sin and must purify themselves in order to achieve virtue. Should they die before such a task can be achieved, they are eternally damned.)

Two young men at an elite boarding school find themselves standing apart from their fellows. An affable young aristocrat named Charles is the only one to befriend a moody and angry young man named Thomas, a boy of noble birth whose family bears a secret (or not-so-secret) shame. The two commiserate with regards to the unpleasant and unrelenting demands of the school's social hierarchy.

However, when they head off to spend a holiday with one of Thomas's distant relatives, they begin to suspect that there is far more to the notion of Smoke than they have ever been told. Secrets are revealed, putting the pair and those close to them in grave danger. They cross paths with saints and sinners alike, meeting murderers and revolutionaries and geniuses along the way. Charles and Thomas become enmeshed in a struggle between good and evil one where it remains unclear which side is which.

For while those who Smoke have sinned, perhaps not all who sin will Smoke.

It wasn't so long ago that a book such as this one would have been dismissed as little more than genre work entertaining, but lacking in any real literary merit. But there's no denying that the critical establishment has become far more understanding with regards to the sophistication and power that can be generated through speculative elements.

And make no mistake 'Smoke' is a sophisticated and powerful work.

The notion of Smoke allows for a number of metaphysical questions to be asked questions about the nature of sin, about human behavior, about class and about social order in ways both direct and indirect. From the lavish bedchambers of an aristocratic manor to the pitch-black depths of a coal mine, we see people running the gamut of the human experience. These are people who are waging a war of the soul some battling to purify souls that are actually untarnished, others smugly celebrating Soot-dark souls that they believe to be clean.

To be truthful, this is a scattered work in some respects. There's a chaos to the narrative that occasionally makes it difficult to follow. However, the story is well-worth the effort. Comparisons have been made to the work of Dickens Vyleta himself has named the author as an influence and they seem apt, although Dickens tended to bury the darkness; the twisted nature of Vyleta's narrative sits much closer to the surface.

'Smoke' shows us a world where sin is inescapable, where our very thoughts can betray us in our less virtuous moments. It is a dark and dreary place, one where not even the light of truth can shine through the dense fogbank of sin's Smoke.

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