(I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)
I really liked the premise: sin and violent emotions taking on shape and scent, through a strange smoke people let escape in spite of themselves, in an alternate Victorian setting where, much like in real Victorian England, the "lower classes" are considered as sinful, while the "upper classes" are supposed to be their betters—and what's best here than -not- displaying the dreadful Smoke, right? However, ultimately I couldn't care about the story at all, nor about the characters. I partly blame this on the rhythm, and partly on the choice of narrative tense and voices.
The first chapters, albeit a little slow, had the kind of atmosphere I hoped the whole novel would carry throughout, involving a private boarding school, creepy students, and masters entrenched within their stinky moral rectitude. Lovely, isn't it? There is so much one can do with such a setting (can you tell I like boarding school settings?). There was so much promise to the strained relationship between Julius, the apparently perfect, almost angelic student who submits others to his own rule on top of the teachers', a monster in elegant disguise, and Thomas, a murderer's son, openly convinced that he's a monster and will end up like his father.
Alas, after that, or more specifically about the part where the boys go visit London, things went downhill.
I can definitely say the narrative style didn't convince me: a blend of a first and third person, but also of present and past tense. Unfortunately, first POV present is difficult to properly achieve, and third POV present is even more difficult... and it just didn't work here, bringing a constant jarring note to the story. I spent more time being bothered about the tense shifts and sometimes confusing points of view, than really paying attention to what I was reading. Not to mention that some of those narrators weren't so useful, being brought in for one scene, then never again—in other words, I never got to get a feeling for these characters, not enough to care about what happened to them. This extended to the actual main characters, who could have had an interesting dynamics as a twisted love triangle, united in sin and darkness as they were uncovering a plot that may or may not destroy England as they knew it.
Another really bothering thing was how the Smoke was everywhere, permeating every stratum of society, at the heart of the mystery... yet in the end, there was no clue as to -why- exactly it existed, what brought it out of humans. Something supernatural? Something physiological? Nada. And since there's no indication whatsoever that there'll be a second volume, for now it looks like we'll never know. (Also, because the origins of Smoke, its nature, are involved in the plot our three "heroes" unveil, the absence of revelation and information is all the more annoying.)
It took me weeks to finish this novel, and to be honest, had I not felt like I owned a review for NetGalley, I'd have DNFed it.