I read the first half with a frenetic intensity, though as the book went on, with a mild annoyance, too. Mr. Vyleta, known in Canada and Britain for his atmospheric, well-made thrillers (including The Quiet Twin and The Crooked Maid), writes with intricacy and imagination and skillful pacing; never once would I have considered putting his book down. But when he wants to make a point, he plays with a heavy hand — fortissimo, when piano would have done.
Vyleta is a skilled, inventive writer, and his idea here is inspired; in its initial burst of creative energy, Smoke is headily like the fiction of David Mitchell or Michel Faber. Unfortunately, the novel’s strong premise is betrayed almost immediately by problems of both storytelling and world-building, which are first distracting, then grave and finally fatal. The plot is the more serious of Vyleta’s difficulties. It seems badly underthought — too compressed in time, inexcusably dependent on contrivance and coincidence — and its intricate strands, tracking smokeless savages and hidden shipboard compartments and mad schoolmasters, never really cohere ... Vyleta is talented enough to fill Smoke with plenty of good scenes and good writing, all the way through. But his novel never attains its own reality.
In an increasingly twisty plot, the true nature and origin of the Smoke becomes a central question — especially after a brewing revolution threatens to challenge England's insular rule of law, which demands that its citizens neither travel abroad nor receive foreign books or ideas ... Obscurity might be apt in a book called Smoke, but at points Vyleta takes it too far. The story has a marked Dickensian slant — the smoke and soot at the start of Dickens's Bleak House are an obvious parallel, and Smoke even comes with an epigraph from Dombey and Son — but Vyleta's mimicry of Dickens's ornate prose sometimes bogs down the pace. And the rules by which the Smoke operates never fully make sense, varying from instance to instance...[but] Vyleta's refusal to make his central premise crystal clear eventually becomes one more gloriously murky layer of atmosphere.
Vyleta takes this intriguing premise and works its ramifications cleverly into the rhythms of his story. Smoke is being marketed as a commercially canny hybrid of Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, and for once both comparisons are apt ... the book’s main problem is living up to its extraordinary opening chapters ... The momentum drains from the narrative in the latter half, and although the ending is a satisfying round-off, there’s a sense of a novel that doesn’t quite ignite ... despite glitches in its pacing, this is a novel that stays in the imagination long after it is read.
Vyleta’s characters are vivid and distinct; he has a great feel for language from many castes. His landscapes are near-tangible. And, crucially, the smell and taste of smoke is nicely integrated in the action...Vyleta has created interesting characters and an intriguing set of circumstances. Once you start reading, you’ll need to know how it ends.
Readers will change their opinions about Smoke about a hundred times throughout this novel. It is mysterious and weird and has no clear analogue in the real world. The fact that it's still driving me crazy after finishing the novel tells me Dan Vyleta is a genius and I should read all of his other works. He succeeds in making the reader think about bigger concepts while telling a stay-up-late-into-the-night-reading type of story. There are some digressions that delve into the world of the working class that present a romanticized noble peasant, and the work would not have suffered had those been edited out...Either way, what a story.