Smoke is a book that presents the idea - what if your stronger emotions were visible? People's Anger, Lust and Lies all visible as real smoke and soot that settles around them, permeating their clothes and the space around them. Within this world Children are born carrying "the seeds of evil" within them while the ruling elite have somehow found a way to control their desires and control their sin.
As you might imagine there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, the rich in spotless clothing and "sin free" while the poor walk around in soot-stained clothes within a miasma of sooty air. Sons of the rich are sent to private schools and taught to become future leaders.
Thomas and Charlie are two such children, whose beliefs are thrown into doubt by a school trip to the forbidden, sin filled streets of London.
Smoke is being billed as filling the gap between Harry Potter and the┬áNorthern Lights series - not a gap I'm familiar with but non-the-less it is clearly aimed at the older YA market. At times though it seems quite dark for a YA novel. It's set in an alternative world that feels slightly steam-punk and victorian, certainly pre-industrial revolution.
The world building manages to walk that thin line between too much and too little. It does feel original and quite different although there is a dark edge that is slightly reminiscient of Phillip Pullman's series. Anyway it's solid, thought-provoking world-building that sparks the imagination.
As colourful (or smoke-filled) the backdrop may be, the same cannot be said of the protagonists who seem a little flat and unendearing. I found it difficult to care about their predicaments - although the antagonists do come across as being sufficiently bad and ruthless. While the first part of the novel deals with these children, later we get to delve into the politics and science beehind this strange world and I found this part of the book much more engrossing.
The idea of the wealthy being clean and the poor being not only dirty but tainted and sinful (although it's clear smoke is exhibited by any strong emotion, not just sinful ones) is quite obvious in the parallel to todays commercialist society - especially in the UK where the old colonial class system is still highly visible.
The story and it's characters are however much more morally ambigious than you might expect and it's interesting to see a reversal on the average YA story. In Smoke the protagonists are seen as the dirty, tainted people - expected to slip into a quiagmire of sin and depravity at any time. The aristocracy are whiter than white, free of sin or crime or grime - a view that is course only skin deep.
The writing is quite dense and requires a good deal of effort which when combined with a slow pace and lack of any real tension makes for a long, slow read. This further confuses the way it is presented as a YA novel - in many ways it feels like it's aimed at those who were Young Adults when the first Harry Potter books were released (the first book was released a suprisingly long time ago).
Overall Smoke doesn't quite hit the notes it aims for, a slow pace and lack of likeable protagonists let's it down while the story seems to stall part way through and doesn't really get going again. It does however present an interesting alternative world and as such there is promise for future books in the series.
Written on Thursday 25th August 2016 by Antony Jones.
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