I surprised myself a little by giving this four stars; all the while I was reading it I’d fully expected to be giving it an easy five. It’s so wildly unique, a remarkable recreation of the world with one extraordinary addition. And it’s a well-built recreation, a fully realized alternative England with the vital difference of the Smoke.
The Smoke … what a fascinating, wildly unique idea. All of a person’s base thoughts and deeds manifest in wisps – or clouds, or billows, depending – of visible matter, leaving a smell in the air and soot on clothing and everything else. And it’s self-perpetuating, as its presence in the air sparks off behavior which leads to more Smoke … English culture has warped around the phenomena: theatre is so thoroughly banned that children don’t know what it is, and schools seem to concentrate as much on the amount of soot you show as on your grasp of arithmetic. They’re certainly not going to br teaching you Shakespeare. Or evolution. (Or about giraffes, for some reason.)
While I admire the tight-lipped style of storytelling – tight alternating points of view, with absolutely none of the dreded “info-dumping” – it was also frustrating at times. How and when and where did the Smoke originate? Is it worldwide? What is the science behind it? Some answers are provided, but only what the main characters discover – and they don’t dig for answers to the same questions I was asking.
What took a star away from my rating was, in the end, the direction of the plot and its resolution. As a whole the book seemed to lack a certain clarity. I think part of the problem was that the author succumbed to the temptation of giving the villain of the piece his own point of view sections, and I find that this usually serves to weaken a story. To my mind, it’s always better to keep a book’s focus on the main characters, letting the reader wonder with them what the bad guys are up to, being surprised when they are when the bad guys pop up, rather than indulging in a bit of evil gloating through the villain’s eyes, followed often by a recap of the same scene once the protagonists cover the same ground.
Still and all, it was an impressive, if somewhat chilly book.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.