Friday, April 6, 2018


by Dan Vyleta
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this book, whose German-Canadian author seems to specialize in fiction set in a society going through or recovering from a totalitarian nightmare (such as post-World War II Germany and Austria), an alternate-history version of Victorian England is in the grip of an isolationist ideology combined with an ultra-Puritan religious doctrine. In this parallel universe, people give off smoke to show when they are having sinful thoughts. This fact has hardened the lines between the upper class, who are educated to repress their animal instincts, and the common folk, who are taught to expect to go to hell based on the amount of smoke issuing from their bodies. One effect of this is that the ruling class seems to have a mandate from God. Another is that, with a little illicit aid from secret, smoke-suppressing sweets, the art of hypocrisy has been carried to a level rarely seen in our reality. Besides that, some of the smokeless elite find themselves tempted by an opportunity to sneak a puff, often in the form of going to London (which is one big cloud of smoke) to do good works for their thankless inferiors.

In this strange world, two schoolboys - one naturally good, the other naturally naughty, but best friends just the same - and a prim, almost nunnish girl get caught in a deadly swirl of conspiracies. On one side is a plot to blow up the moral high ground, no matter how many people get hurt. On another side is a man whose fanatical commitment to breeding the sin out of mankind makes him capable of torturing children. Circling behind the scenes is a secret police force led by a sometime witchfinder. And stalking right through the middle of it are a coldblooded angel and a demon in human form. All Charlie, Tom and Livia can do is ride out the storm and, if possible, try to save one innocent child.

I enjoyed the interplay between the characters in this book, and I found the conflicts and sympathies that developed among them emotionally compelling and thought-provoking. Though the book seemed to be trying to take some kind of ideological position, it was never quite clear what it was - except perhaps something preposterous like "down with morality." It got close enough to that, at times, to take some of the pleasure out of reading it. Nonetheless, I felt sympathy, disgust, horror, and suspense regarding all the characters and scenes the author intended, so I think on balance it was a successful book. It was also very clearly the work of an original prose stylist and a reasonably capable world-building fantasist. So I was inclined to swallow an objection that occasionally rose in my throat, regarding how easy it is to destroy a straw man when you build him just so.

Vyleta is also the author of Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin and Crooked Maid. It is rumored that he plans to publish a sequel to this book.

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