Fiction Reviews


(2020) Dan Vyleta, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99, hrdbk, 546pp, ISBN 978-0-297-60995-7


The sequel to his 2016 novel, Smoke, in which he brought us a Victorian world in which one’s sins and desires were visible as vapour leaving the body, Soot by Dan Vyleta picks up the story several years after Smoke’s culminating events and the devastation caused. It follows several of Smoke’s characters – Eleanor, Mowgli (now Nil) and Thomas – as well as some new ones, to explore the world Charlie and Thomas created, and face up to some of the problems they may have unwittingly caused.

In his sequel, Vyleta spends a lot of time, as in the first novel, in setting up a detailed and vivid world close to, but not the same as, ours in the Victorian era. This time, as well as the quirk of Smoke, the visible emanations of people’s innermost feelings, he has to create a world that has been forever changed by a disaster in England, and the knock on effects when closing its borders means consequences in its empire. We see this world from several sides – a travelling theatre company in the US, a revolutionary in India, a thief looking for clues about his past on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as several perspectives on the England that has emerged from the ashes of devastation. It’s an England divided into north and south, one trying to create a new, freer, more equalitarian society and the other clinging onto the last threads of tradition.

And as far as that goes, Vyleta has done a great job – his ability to describe places and people and politics is great, and he takes the time to really describe the world he has built up for the reader in vivid detail. He is particularly good at descriptions of landscapes and locations, and the book reads as a visually arresting one because of it.

This is, however, also somewhat his downfall. In building such a complex and compelling world, in devoting all that time to its painstaking creation, Vyleta gives the sense, steadily growing as the book progresses, that it is by far the setting he cares about more, not the story or the characters. This is a novel more about the world of Soot, where people are learning to accept what were considered “sins” in his previous book, and how that changes how people interact with one another, than it is about anything else. And in many ways, that’s understandable – it’s a fascinating world, and it works so well because it has been so thoroughly considered and explored – but the novel suffers greatly for it, especially when it comes to the pacing. The first third of the book is extremely slow going, with what little action there is heavily bogged down by constant diversions and descriptions. The pace picks up a little as the story progresses, but never to the point of being an easy read.

The characters also suffer somewhat against this. While they get rich inner lives and thoughts as part of how Vyleta builds his world, these rarely match up to the fairly minimal actions they seem to take in the world around them, up until close to the end of the book. We are told a great deal about who they are, but we see very little of it in how they interact with their world and with each other, and so it falls a little flat against its own promises.

That being said, even as the reader is lamenting the lack of pace and plot development, it is hard not to appreciate the prose in those slow sections. For all that, if the speed of the plot sometimes drops off, the quality of the writing never does, and there’s far more space to appreciate that when not being hurried onwards by a desperate desire to know what happens next.

And so this is a very mixed assessment. There are areas of genuine excellence, and the author has built a world it is very easy to become fascinated by, and want to learn more about. But this has come heavily at the expense of the story’s functionality as a novel, and even the loveliest prose sometimes falls short when the reader just doesn’t have the will and compulsion to keep on reading.

Roseanna Pendlebury


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