Trade is embargoed in the Victorian England of Dan Vyleta’s Smoke—because the religious aristocracy of the country are invested in keeping their narrative about Smoke, which rises from people on commission of a “sin,” paramount. This narrative keeps the rich on top and the poor on the bottom; in reality, the wealthy use various means to hide their Smoke. Thomas and Charlie meet at a boarding school designed to tutor them in controlling their Smoke as members of the upper class—but there’s far more at work here than just boyhood squabbles.
Times are changing, and various figures on the political and scientific scene are attempting to alter the rulership and social mores of the country. Our protagonists, along with Livia, a young woman whose family is bound up in the very heart of the struggle, must uncover various plots and make their own decisions about the path to righteousness—for themselves, and for their nation. It’s Dickensian in intent and fantastical in scope, but it’s also a novel about young people on the cusp of adulthood.
Vyleta’s approach to building his narrative takes a moment of adjustment: each chapter is from a different viewpoint, which is not uncommon, but the chapters also shift from third person to first person to third-person limited. The effect is tapestry-like and the political/social plot is therefore given several angles rather than just that of our young wealthy protagonists, which is valuable for giving the novel more depth in its commentary—though given our historical remove from the time period, that commentary often also feels rather obvious. The balance between young people’s scuffles—Julius and Thomas, in particular—and the politics of the realm is interesting. Vyleta manages to make it believable by tying them all into things greater than themselves, while it is truly the adults that move the pieces on the board around them until the last moments when they have the opportunity to decide for their own purposes.
Truly, though, the response I have to this novel is layered. On the one hand, there is an intense pleasure for me in the closing chapter—specifically in the admission that Thomas, Charlie, and Livia will be pursuing their relationship together—but for the majority of the text, I found the invisibility of desire between the young men distracting at best. While it was a pleasant surprise in the end that the love triangle is a threesome, Vyleta does not do much to support that throughout the text. Heterosexual desire here is well-explained and well-exploited; queer desire is so utterly disregarded and invisible that I was actually in a state of unguarded frustration with the novel until perhaps the final 70 pages, and even then, its presence is so delicate that I’m half-worried I’m imagining it.
It is strange to be both elated at the unexpected development of Thomas and Charlie’s relationship—which, to be frank, struck me as intimate from the first—to each other and Livia together… while also feeling that the book as a whole does a strange sort of disservice to its representation of queer attachment and desire. This is a faux-Victorian world; it is also obsessed with sin and desire; and yet somehow, the first hint of explicit homoerotic attraction spilled out on the page is Julius’s mad raving about his desire to be one with Thomas. Between Thomas and Charlie, in the end, it is as delicate as a few sideways remarks about mouths and a held hand.
In one reading it is possible to suggest that the boys themselves are diffusing the homoerotic tension in their late-night feelings jams, the boxing scene, the liquid closeness that binds them, but to be perfectly clear, Vyleta is too good in other scenes at revealing the text’s intentions outside of the characters to have not done the same with their relationship. It’s instead a strange sort of gap, a blank spot, that deserved more attention. It’s possible to be pleased at its ultimate inclusion while also feeling that it is treated as somehow less-than heterosexual desire throughout the text.
The final chapters between our three young protagonists are excellent, though, to be honest. The primary thing that itches at me on a structural level is that there’s a strange lack of balance; the same is true in the pacing for the plot. Vyleta has a keen eye for detail but does not apply it evenly across the board. Often chapters feel like asides—handsome but purposeless. It is a strange tug of war for me: were it not for the quality of some use of detail and implication and desire, I wouldn’t be as confused by the lack otherwise, and the same with the plotting. If the pacing wasn’t well done and solid for long stretches, the fumbles wouldn’t be so noticeable either.
I suspect, in the end, it’s safe to say I did appreciate the novel. The world is intriguing and believably concerned with vice, control, and imperialism; the London of Smoke is a wonder, as are the small details like the banning of technology and Shakespeare. The conclusion is satisfying: young people deciding to take a risk, themselves, to change the world and find love in each other. While it’s rather long, and the treatment of queer desire in it still leaves me with a strange taste in my mouth, it also acquits itself well in the end. It is, after all, a crowing moment of finally someone admits it! when the narrative allows that in Charlie’s smoke, his two friends can read the scene of “Thomas, Livia, flushed and beckoning; bare shoulders entangled under a linen sheet” while Thomas places his kiss with the nurse in the mines on the same list as his boxing with Charlie.
I’m satisfied, in the end. It was worth the investment of time. The plot is reasonably engaging, played out on a believably large but constricted stage. The characters, particularly our leading trio, are fraught young people with very distinct personalities, wants, and needs. I found spending time with them pleasurable, and I also appreciate that Vyleta spends time on developing Livia rather than letting her slip into the love-interest role without any personal drive. She has chosen both Thomas and Charlie, as the two of them have chosen each other and her. That delightful ending also colors my opinion of the rest of the text, of course, but overall I would say that—despite its odd foibles—Smoke is a decent read, uneven but rewarding at the close.
Smoke is available now from Knopf Doubleday.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.