My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m quite certain that reviews of this book will make much of its ‘Dickensian’ atmosphere and setting. The author is clearly aiming for such, with quotes from Dickens included… However, something kept poking at me, saying, “Dickens? Hmm… that’s not quite it.” And suddenly it sprang at me: Joan Aiken. (Yes, Aiken has more than a touch of the Dickensian herself.) But that’s the feel of this book exactly. If you loved Joan Aiken’s books as a kid, you will LOVE this book now. It’s aimed at a slightly older audience: I’d say that this is YA for young adults who don’t mind their stories dark. Like Aiken, Vyleta’s story features an England of yesteryear, a plot that’s essentially an adventure tale, with much romping around the countryside – but with truly creepy villains and the real potential of bad things happening to our young characters.
Those main characters are Thomas Argyle (whom I kept picturing as Thomas from Downton Abbey) and his friend Charlie, students at an elite boys’ boarding school in the classic fashion of a certain genre of literature. We soon learn, through a brutal incident of hazing, how this world differs from ours: This Britain is affected on every level by Smoke. Smoke is just that: a sooty discharge that emanates from people, particularly when people are overtaken by their passions, by emotion, especially by guilt. Smoke is seen as sin, and an indication of sin. It is also seen as an indicator of class: of course, the peasantry is rife with smoke, but a gentleman should never be seen to show a stain of such – he should always be self-controlled and pristine.
Thomas has an unshakable belief in his own state of sin, due to a hidden incident in his family history. He looks up to his friend Charlie as far more virtuous than he. His main concern is the state of his soul – until he is invited, nay summoned, for the holidays to the home of an uncle who’s a stranger to him. Charlie accompanies him, and there the boys discover a bizarre situation. The uncle is confined to his room, unwell, and his aunt is running the show. She seems to be engaged in mad-scientist type experiments involving Smoke – which are also probably highly illegal. Also in the house is her daughter, the rigidly repressed Livia – and then, Thomas’ worst bully from school turns up, with an unexpected reason for being present. Outside of school, his dastardly acts may be even less restrained than they were before, and the boys believe that they may be in serious danger, from multiple directions.
Have they stumbled onto clues to knowledge that they were never intended to see? It seems they’re over their heads, and in the midst of some very adult plots involving both the highest and the lowest echelons of their society.
Many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.