The alternative world presented in Smoke is a fascinating idea, and a mix of ideas I was thrilled to be spending time with. In Vyleta’s altered Victorian England sinful thoughts and feelings are manifested as smoke that rises from your skin and leaves a unwashable soot behind. Breathing in the smoke of another can spread their feelings into you, and breed more and darker thoughts. The cleanest of people, who happen also to be the wealthiest, are seen as morally better people, and spend their lives learning to control and repress their Smoke. Two boys from a high class boarding school are sent to a distant family member’s estate for the holidays. When they stumble upon their host’s revolutionary secret, they are forced, along with her daughter, to flee across the countryside. The origin and nature of Smoke, and the way it functions in their world, are called into question on their journey to the dark depths of London. They are forced out of their elite worldview and to see things as they really are, and how they could be.
The morality of this world is obviously not simplified by the physical manifestation of negativity, and instead the divide between the supposedly morally superior upper classes and the soot covered working people is made deeper and more visible. The most intriguing ideas explored are those about the very nature of sin and humanity, and how we can justify our own sin while judging the sins of others. Some of these explorations are a little thin, and the most interesting people aren’t followed as much as I would have liked them to be. A portion of the book is spent in a large mine where the workers are plotting to unionize, and I would have loved to get some more perspective from the actual workers instead of being as stuck as we were with the protagonists. The plot itself is paced a little oddly, and ends a little abruptly, but the plot takes a bit of a backseat to the fantastic world-building that’s going on. I would have been perfectly happy if this book had no story at all and just moved from town to city and described the residents and their distinct flavors of smoke. I was completely engrossed with the world of this book, if not the specific story told.