Welcome to a world in which every dark desire is visible, a contagious plume rising from one's offending body, disclosing its vice. A world in which desire has become a language, bodies speaking to one another in many-coloured Smoke. There are those who celebrate this constant whisper of skin to skin, and those who wish to silence it forever. The world stands on a precipice. It is not so easy to know which side to choose.
Erasmus Renfrew, the avowed enemy of Smoke, is Lord Protector of what remains of the English state. Charlie and Livia, who set off a revolution by releasing Smoke upon the world, live in Minetowns, an egalitarian workers' community in the north of England which lives by Smoke. And Elizabeth Renfrew, Erasmus' niece who was the subject of his cruel experiments in suppressing Smoke, is in hiding from her uncle in provincial Canada. What she endured has given her a strange power over Smoke.
Believing her uncle's agents have found her, she flees to New York with a theatre troupe led by Balthazar Black, an impresario with secrets of his own. There they encounter Mowgli, a boy from the jungle whose body was used to trigger the tempest that unleashed the Smoke, now makes a living as a chameleon-like thief in New York.
All these people seek to discover the true nature of Smoke, and thereby control its power. As their destinies entwine, a cataclysmic confrontation looms, and the Smoke will either bind them together or rend the world.