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.