Judging books by their covers – totally a legitimate decision. This opinion has once more been confirmed, so I’ll carry on doing it. I was wandering around Foyle’s, looking for All the Birds in the Sky, which I had fully intended to buy, when I saw this. And I have to admit, I did just really like the cover. Yes, it helped that it was also a properly hefty hardback, and those things are just attractive objects. But I don’t know, something about the fairly simple cover art was just immensely pleasing to me. So I skimmed a chapter and the blurb, and found myself not really willing to put it down again… I can’t even tell you what was so enticing about it. Much like All the Birds in the Sky, I have no real understanding of why I so very much wanted to read it, but I know that I did, and I have no regrets about the decision to do so. I’m not quite so enthusiastically pleased with Smoke, but it was a pretty good read. So yeah, top marks for cover judging right here.
When I got it home, flatmate may have assessed it as “so it’s basically just Northern Lights, right?”. This is not an unfair assessment. And I find this odd, because I really really did not enjoy the His Dark Materials trilogy. At. All. Evidently it wasn’t the concept that was the problem, just the execution.
Smoke is set in a world where “sin” (and this is a nebulous concept in the book, and this nebulousness is explored) is visible as actual smoke whenever people sin, either in action or thought. The book follows two teenage boys as they fall into investigating what this really means, and how this might change. Mostly, though, it’s alt-history, where an obsession with morality and sin has led to a hyper-conservative Britain with isolationist policies shunning modernity and technology. Maybe he has a commentary about modern Britain. I couldn’t possibly say. So while the plot is interesting – and it really is – the book is far more an exploration of “what if” than it is a story… which led to it feeling a little bit weird. Because that sort of thing is what I normally expect to see in SF, not fantasy. But Smoke most definitely fantasy. It’s got a layer of Victorian pseudo-science covering it, but it’s fantasy nonetheless. And I actually rather like it. I’m not usually a fan of SF-what-if stories. They tend to focus too closely on whatever cool change they implement, at the expense of characters and sometimes plot, but Vyleta has pulled it off here with none of those issues. Maybe because it’s fantasy? But that seems a weak argument. Much though I think there tends to be better plot/character stuff in fantasy than SF, I can’t really bring myself to claim it fixes all ills. I think it is just a very thoughtful novel, where the author has been very careful not to let all else slide for the sake of a cool idea.
I’m pretty much sticking with “thoughtful” for everything I have to say about the book. It’s got a fairly slow pace and gently built up characters that overwhelmingly feel like the author has spent ages carefully considering everything he’s done. It’s not got that big plot crescendo you often get, or any wild and sudden character revelations… just a steady, measured build, where you feel absolutely that every detail has been considered. It’s not something I want all the time, but for a now and again book, it’s definitely very enjoyable.
The only real downside is that it doesn’t lend itself to strong emotions, particularly about the characters. They’re all interesting, no doubt. They’re well balanced and developed and worth reading. But I don’t adore any of them. I appreciate them, and that’s it. The main character is a little bit too self-absorbed, but in a plausible and very teenage way that fits beautifully into the setting, and he’s balanced enough by the supporting characters that it never grates quite too much. And, while there is some romance, it is heavily constrained by the pseudo-Victorian morality of the setting, and so manages not to be teenage and cringeworthy. I’m ok with “understated” as the descriptor for the romances I read, if I’m honest. It’s not what I’m here for, most of the time, and I’m glad that it can sometimes be skimmed over in favour of, y’know, actual plot. That being said, it does not progress in a stereotypical manner, and is handled much more… thoughtfully… than a lot of romance I read, so I’m also just in favour of it for that too.
While my blurb makes it sound like the political metaphor going on is very heavy-handed indeed, I’m perhaps being unfair. There definitely is some – the author states in his notes that he thinks fiction ought to interact with what’s going on in the world – but it doesn’t smash you in the face with opinions. It’s there, quietly, for when you want to engage with it, but if all you’re here for is some fun plot, then you can just take that away with you and not feel like you’ve had anyone’s political opinions pushed down your throat. I am, again, quite in favour of this. Unsubtle current affairs metaphors are not my thing.
So all in all, it’s a pretty good book. It’s not stunning, it won’t win any prizes, and it doesn’t really do anything I’ve not seen before. But it’s a lovely example of what it is, and it does do the whole what-if thing in a fantasy setting, which is at least a bit unusual. It’s measured and paced and calm and considered, and just a satisfying book to read. Not exciting, not gripping… but sometimes “satisfying” is what I want. Luckily, it was what I wanted when I read this last week. So hurrah. Definitely worth a read, and it does some of the ideas from His Dark Materials in a better and more grown-up-book suited way, if that’s what you want from life. Also with less theological bullshittery.
Next up, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Slade House, the first of which I’ve already finished and the second of which nearly. Oops.