This novel commences with a late-night kangaroo trial in the toilets of an elite British boys’ school. Combining the worst of church confessional with Maoist self-critique, it pits vice-ridden youth against a completely virtuous head boy. We know his complete virtue because his wholly white clothing lacks stain. He asks pointed questions, many frequently hurtful, to expose any concealed sins, which lesser boys reveal when their bodies emit visible Smoke.
What Philip Pullman did for Narnia, Dan Vyleta here does for Harry Potter, essentially reconstructing the story without the original’s moral certitude and Christian backbone. Though this story lacks out-and-out wizardry—Vyleta’s worldview forbids characters to impose their will on reality—the parallels are undeniable, and profound. Though Vyleta won’t displace J.K. Rowling’s cultural primacy, he crafts an engaging, smart counter-narrative, and a fun, thoughtful fantasy besides.
Young Thomas Argyle, orphaned scion of a disgraced minor aristocrat, Smokes like nobody before him. In this world, every sin creates Smoke from human flesh, a malodorous vapour making secret vices visible to everyone. But where others have wispy Smoke, color-coded according to their sins, Thomas’ sin is thick, black, and undifferentiated. He’s something new, something unprecedented. And that scares the squeaky-clean, self-contained nobles of Smoke-drenched England.
Vyleta’s trio of protagonists are almost-perfect mirrors of the Potterverse trio. Where prophecy heralds Harry Potter’s heroic triumph over certain evil, science predicts Thomas’ slide into irrevocable vice. His sidekick, Charlie Cooper, is intellectual but lacking direction; he takes orders from Thomas because he needs purpose that Thomas’ passion provides. They’re joined by Livia Naylor, not book-learned, but blessed with acquired rectitude and bloodless adherence to rules.
The dust-flap copy implies our protagonists encounter a Matrix-like conspiracy that everything they think they know is lies. That proves an ultimate subplot, one never really resolved (perhaps Vyleta’s saving something for the sequel). Rather, the story pits three intrepid heroes, blessed with more grit than information, against a massive bureaucratic machine that performs backflips to keep sin from England’s doorsteps. The result is altogether darker, and more morally ambiguous.
Issues of trust arise: who can our youthful protagonists trust when power is distributed unjustly? Schoolmasters have unvoiced personal agendas. Churchmen have no particular theology, mainly worshiping the forms of order. Even Lady Naylor, Livia’s mother, a mentor to young Thomas, keeps secrets with especial aplomb. She has knowledge our heroes need, and dominates them by withholding it strategically. Is she Dumbledore or Voldemort? We never can really tell.
Our heroes have entered a domain which Anglo-American anthropologist David Graeber calls “total bureaucratization,” that state where instruments of control are so comprehensive, they become invisible, and thus unquestionable. Science, religion, education, government, and industry all maintain cantilevered secrets. In Rowling, we generally know characters’ motivation from their actions. Vyleta assumes powerful people lie to disguise their intentions, clothing themselves in false righteousness, a painful lesson for our high-minded students.
If anything, this novel’s greatest enemy is absolute thinking. At various points, the young heroes attack various enemies, an ever-shifting pinwheel of antagonism, never fully grasping the bureaucracy that actually threatens them. In Rowling’s world Voldemort’s evil is never questioned; only how to defeat him is. Vyleta suggests “evil” is a useless umbrella term. The youths never doubt their own rightness, and adult wrongness, even as their mission wildly vacillates.
It isn’t accurate to call Vyleta’s world atheistic. This story isn’t Godless, just lacking in certitude. God joins countless other institutions in becoming a pervasive “maybe,” less important to England’s self-proclaimed holy than rectitude. These characters never abandon the language of religion, accurate for Victorian England, but gradually outgrow the illusion of certainty. Burgeoning surety of purpose prompts the characters to abandon reliance on transcendent verities.
This novel isn’t fast beach reading. It requires an investment of time and mental energy. Despite its young heroes, it isn’t YA fiction; it appears targeted, rather, at adults who previously embraced Rowling’s Joseph Campbell-ish “hero’s journey.” It makes an interesting companion volume, a friendly but uncompromising debate partner challenging Rowling’s staunchly conservative moralism. Vyleta here becomes one of fantasy’s truly good new voices.