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Book review: Believable characters distinguish historical novel

Jenna Meier Bilbo/For Steamboat Today
Book review
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“Smoke,” by Dan Vyleta

Historical fiction is a tricky genre to write well. The author must have a firm enough grasp on the history to make his or her work recognizable, but also be imaginative enough to insert an element that clearly separates fiction from truth. Author Dan Vyleta does this masterfully.

“Smoke” begins at a high-end finishing school in a could-have-been, 19th-century Oxford, where the young gentlemen are gathered in the basement for an examination. This is no normal exam, though. These boys are faced with the things they are ashamed of and the hope they will not start to smoke. The reader is introduced to two of the main characters, Thomas, who is from a lesser family and a bit of a mystery, and Charlie, a gentleman and future lord.

The smoke is the element that separates Vyleta’s story from the truth: The evidence of one’s sins shows on the skin in the form of soot and smoke, and cleanliness is what separates the upper levels of society from the filthy lower class. It is a society in which cleanliness is considered, quite literally, next to godliness. Something is immediately off, however, when the reader encounters Julius Spencer, who is always clean and, yet, is clearly a sociopath.

As the story moves along and more rules of smoke are revealed — including the meaning of the different colors, textures, and scents — Thomas and Charlie find themselves drawn further into the world outside their school, in which the rules aren’t necessarily what they have been told. Why is it that so many of the horrible people are sparkling, while so many of the good people are dingy? Why does turn-of-the-century England instead resemble the England of a more distant past? What are the conditions of smoke, and do the whisperings of a cure hold any substance?

Ultimately, the boys are drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the very conditions of humanity and a fight for knowledge that could help push their entire country into a new age. The final challenge is, how do you convince anyone, including oneself, to ignore evidence that seeps out of the very skin? Firmly held beliefs are not easily swayed. Will they survive with Julius and his steadily declining mental state on their trail?

It takes a specific understanding of humanity to write believable, well-rounded, yet imperfect characters, which is exactly what Vyleta accomplishes, not only with Thomas and Charlie, but also with his entire cast. The world he has woven will pull readers in and refuse to let them go, even after the final page has been turned. It is inescapably human.

Possibly Vyleta’s greatest accomplishment, however, is the success he has in making his readers look at the world around and wonder what it would be like with the addition of smoke. You will be left wondering not if you would smoke, but how. What are you willing to excuse, what is unforgivable and what is inevitable? That, you will have to decide for yourself.

This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.

Jenna Meier Bilbo is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.


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