Ahoy there me mateys! I really wanted to like this book. I really did. The book is an alternate history of Victorian England where sin is marked in a person by Smoke that pours out of their skin. The rich rule in absolute authority because they be clean and seemingly free of Smoke. The poor live with an abundance of Smoke and are covered in soot. Their dirtiness literally signifies their status in life and their inability to govern. At least that is what everyone has been taught.
Thomas and Charlie are two boarding school elite who have two basic aims: 1) to learn to better control their smoke and graduate and 2) to avoid the headboy and his vendetta against all costs until they do graduate. However these best friends unwittingly become pawns in a high stakes political divide which has them running for their lives and trying to figure out who they can trust.
I absolutely loved the Victorian setting. I absolutely loved the concept of the Smoke and how it has permeated every facet of society. I like how the aristocracy has tricks and training that help maintain the status quo. The world building was really fun. I immensely enjoyed both Charlie and Thomas as characters. The problems were found in the execution of the novel.
The book is split into six parts. The first part was in the boarding school and was stellar. Now only was the boarding school itself wonderfully portrayed but the social complexities of the world were intense and fascinating. I particularly loved the students’ trip to London and how they first encounter the harsh realities of the poor and Smoke. In addition, the larger political problems of England are nicely encountered through relationships between the students and teachers. Seriously I was hooked.
Then the holidays come and part two begins. In this section politics have decreed that both Thomas and Charlie will spend the winter break with relations of Thomas. Thomas has had little contact with them and is confused by the summons. Neither boy wants to be there but has been forced by the adults and societal expectations. This section was overall fine. The boys begin to really discover the lies and secrets behind Smoke. I was intrigued by the mystery and wanted to know more. I was interested in the machinations of the Lady of the manor and her daughter. The headboy also entered the larger picture. Unfortunately upon the boys leaving the manor house, the plot began to die.
The remainder of the novel takes place with the boys on the run and not in school. There be a love triangle. Characters appear once to pontificate and never be seen again. The action stalls in many sections with the characters waiting around and doing nothing. Both Charlie and Thomas make arbitrary decisions to move things along. The gang be in situations where the downtrodden adults of London should have murdered, stabbed, or harmed them in some fashion. Nothing of the sort happens. The plot rambles and makes very little sense.
I kept reading because I needed to know the great reveal and point of it all. I kept expecting the disparate parts to coalesce into a brilliant scheme with the gruelling tension of part one . Turns out when the reveal came it was confusing and silly and lackluster. The novel failed to make sense. The politics, emotions, and rationale were just absurd. I was highly disappointed and felt like me time and the lovely concept had been wasted. So this one walks the plank! Arrrr!
Goodreads’ website has this to say about the novel:
In an alternate Victorian England those who are wicked are marked by the smoke that pours out of their bodies. The aristocracy are clean, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot.
Thomas Argyle is the only son of a wayward aristocrat. Charlie Cooper is his best friend. When Thomas finds himself under the boot heel of a sadistic headboy in the treacherous halls of their elite boarding school, he and Charlie begin to question the rules of their society. Then the boys meet Livia, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful family. She leads them to a secret laboratory where they learn that smoke may not be as it seems, and together they set out to uncover the truth about their world.
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