Imagine a world where any shameful thought, any lie, lust, anger or envy are materially embodied, so that they cannot be hidden from anyone. It is this world that the American writer of Czech-German origin, Dan Vyleta,draws in his novel: in the alternative Victorian England he created, someone should think about something bad, from the pores of his skin heavy black smoke begins to leak, staining clothes and intoxicating mind.
Children are most susceptible to smoke, so in rich families it is customary to isolate them from their parents so that they do not hate their offspring for shameless depravity. When the children reach eleven, the aristocrats send them to closed schools: there the teenagers will have to go through the hell of “moral education”. Future ladies and gentlemen should learn to masterly control their emotions to prevent the slightest cloud of smoke from appearing. It is not forbidden to smoke commoners, but it is considered an insurmountable obstacle to the salvation of the soul – Dan Vyleta smoke in the world is thought to be a visible manifestation of sin, therefore the church transparently hints: only aristocrats who are free from smoke and soot can count on the heavens. In addition, of course, the most dangerous place in the country is London – smoked by the smoke of hundreds of thousands of people, disastrous, depraved and attractive.
The main characters of the book are boys, almost boys, Thomas and Charlie, students of the oldest and most severe private school in England. Charlie, a descendant of the noblest family of the kingdom, is by nature sincere and kind-hearted, one of the few who truly loves Thomas – a bully and a rebel with a dark past. Teachers at school are convinced that the smoke emanating from Thomas has a special blackness and density, which indicates a terrible and perhaps hereditary defect that ripens in it, which eventually will burst out. At Christmas, the boys go to visit the house of Aunt Thomas, the eccentric Lady Naylor, who lifts the veil of secrecy over the phenomenon of smoke and introduces her daughter, the young Lady Lydia. By chance, Thomas and Charlie will learn what they should not know, now the whole trio are on the run, and hounds, as skilled as they are inexorable, go on their trail. The next is a fascinating quest with all the essential attributes of the genre: false friends, no help from, ethical dilemmas, neatly placed traps, one big puzzle and a dozen smaller puzzles and, of course, an alluring reward in the final.
The author is extremely skillful, well read and reflective; Dan Vyleta expertly crosses Dickens in his novel (the whole plot of the novel is built on the literal implementation of one of his metaphors) with Philip Pullman and Joanne Rowling George Orwell and Susanna Clarke. A swirling whirlwind through the whole space of classical English literature, without disregarding any respectable cliché, Vyleta turns her novel into a fresh, vigorous and rhythmic remix designed to keep the reader in tune more or less from the first to the last page. And although, to admit, the delightful plot of the novel (an authentic example of the highest quality of prose) promises the reader more than just a dizzying attraction, there is nothing to complain about: the woven Vyleta network of literary allusions holds fast, and the very idea of the smoky world is good so much so that, perhaps, the continuation in this case would not be superfluous at all.