I saw Smoke in O Magazine as part of their summer reading list. The concept sounded fascinating and I immediately suggested it to my library - they bit, and I got to be the first one to read that sucker! Score for me!
In SMOKE, sinful thoughts and actions are accompanied by bursts of smoke from the body of various colors. The upper class are not supposed to Smoke as much and do their damnedest to control it, whereas the lower class live in a crust of Soot.
Thomas and Charlie are two boys at an English boarding school, where inquisition-like inspections for Smoke and Soot are routinely used to shame pupils and make them feel impure and base. But soon they begin to suspect the system isn't fair: Julius, an evil and sociopathic boy, never seems to Smoke...
Is there, perhaps, a way to cheat?
Like others, I loved the first 1/3 of this book. Seeing the class system portrayed in the hierarchy of an all boys' school was very interesting and kind of reminded me of Lyra's Oxford in Phillip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS, except instead of Dust there was Smoke.
The second 1/3 drags a little, although I liked the mystery and the science of Smoke and the introduction of religious fervor. That was a concept that was also present in HIS DARK MATERIALS, and it was controversial enough that the Church that was an antagonist in the series was eliminated from The Golden Compass movie entirely (also eliminating any possible chance at creating sequels, sadly). This was well done, and I liked that there were extremists on both sides - scientific zealots who blurred the lines between experimentation and cruelty and religious zealots who blurred the lines between transcendence and sociopathy. It was very interesting and well done.
The last 1/3 is where the book jumped the shark. Throughout the book, there are various POV swaps and until the last part of the book I didn't mind them too much because they drove the pacing of the story. Here, they began to feel unnecessary, as a way to bulk up the page count - but it was like halting a rollercoaster, and totally skewed my enjoyment of the suspense and tension. So did the unnecessary addition of a love triangle.
Honestly, part of me wishes that the story had been confined to the boarding school, where the enemies were sinister teachers and psychotic boys. Especially since despite making the story so broad in scope, we never really find out where Smoke came from or how exactly it worked (or if we did - I missed it, but I don't think it was mentioned, at least not clearly). SMOKE actually has many of the same problems as another book I read recently, THE LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD. Both had great concepts, but fell flat when it came to controlling pacing and telling the origin story.
2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.