05 March, 2013
'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor
This book came highly recommended by a friend who writes YA fiction, so my expectations were high. I was wary of finding another "it's good, but...", one of those books whose popularity is based on following a formula rather than a new idea.
I was pleasantly surprised to find not only originality but innovation, and-- my phrasing is clumsy, but it's the only way to describe it-- a feeling of reality that both pointed out the magic and fantasy of the story, and brought them into the realm of the plausible. Everything felt and sounded real, from the dialogue to the descriptions of cities both real and imagined. Topped off with startling plot twists that kept me hammering the "next page" button of my e-reader like one of Pavlov's rats with a food dispenser, and what we have here is an intense and complex story that was both satisfying and tantalizing-- what am I supposed to do until I can lay hands on book 2?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone introduces us to Karou, a girl with no last name and no human family who was raised by a bunch of fae creatures (they call themselves the chimaera) in a world next door to our own. Karou, now seventeen, lives in Prague, goes to art school by day and runs errands for her ram-headed chimaera guardian Brimstone by night. And also sometimes by day. Brimstone needs teeth-- animal teeth, human teeth, any kind of teeth he can get Karou to lay hands on-- and he sends Karou to get them, using his workshop as a portal to anywhere in the world.
The book lays down an eerie tone right from the start in explaining how Brimstone pays for his teeth in wishes. A small haul of teeth gets paid with a small wish (like the one that made Karou's hair grow out of her head blue) but a big wish requires a big trade-- like all the teeth you have in your head, pulled out by your own hands. What Brimstone does with the teeth, Karou doesn't know, and it's one of the many mysteries surrounding her childhood.
Then a chance encounter in Morocco opens up a whole new world of information for Karou. Angels are real, and they think the chimaera are evil-- and as part of Brimstone's supply train of teeth, Karou is guilty by association. When the portal doors burn and Karou is cut off from her family, she finds herself drawn to the angel (Akiva) who confronted her in Morocco in spite of her better judgment. He has the answers she badly needs about how to get back to Brimstone's workshop, and hints at a lot more besides, but it isn't only that. With Akiva, Karou feels something she's been waiting to feel her whole life-- and as much as it scares her, she can't keep away. And then Akiva tells her the truth-- the whole truth, about who she really is and where she came from-- and everything changes.
Spoiler alert : I adored this book, and Karou was a huge part of the reason why. Karou is a girl like many other girls-- she has a layered emotional life full of secrets and passions and fears, and a fierce drive to prove herself. But she is unlike "normal" girls too, and not just because of her unconventional past. She's haunted by the fact that she doesn't know where she came from-- or, for that matter, where the chimaera came from, or anything about their world, or why there are eyes tattooed on the palms of her hands-- and is possessed by a burning desire to find the piece of herself she's felt missing all her life.
I absolutely love Karou. I love that she doesn't apologize for wondering what true love is like, or for wanting to find someone or something to make her feel less alone. I love that she's flawed in real, human ways-- jealous enough to waste a wish on making her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend have horrible eyebrows, impulsive enough to have a flying knife fight with an angel in the middle of a crowded street. She's drawn to Akiva and unable to keep away, even when she knows he could kill her, even when she knows he's responsible for shutting her away from her family. Her emotions are her weakness, but she feels them so keenly it's hard not to sympathize.
Zuzana was a big part of the story in my reading of it too. While in some ways she's just a typical best friend character, Taylor goes out of her way to give Zuzana a strong voice and a strong role in Karou's life. She's insistent and dramatic and doesn't fit an expected role in Karou's life. She's funny and honest, sometimes painfully so, forcing Karou to really look at herself and the choices she makes. Karou struggles for so much of the book to figure out who she is, and Zuze is someone who constantly reminds her that no matter where she came from or what she can do or where her loyalties lie, she's a good person and she has a family who loves her, even if that family is just one diminutive puppeteer.
It's hard to talk about the character of Madrigal without spoilers, but I'm going to try, as she also deserves mention. I really liked the flashbacks we got of her, although I liked them mostly for illuminating Akiva's history. Also, those were the parts where the story did verge on the predictable; while it was well-written, the backstory felt less immediate and gripping than Karou's tale. The way the concept of purity versus rebirth was framed and then analyzed was obviously a parallel to the way virginity is often treated in classical fantasy / period romances, and I really liked the odd (and frankly somewhat grotesque) comparison. However, I found Madrigal to be less vivid and personable than Karou. She seemed to fill a role, to be a symbol of something (to everyone, from the chimaera prince Thiago to Akiva himself) rather than having the same unexpected flavor to her that Karou and Zuzana do. The story of her sister Chiro's jealousy and betrayal is a familiar trope, and made me wonder if there can ever be another way for a "star crossed lovers" tale to end except in the couple being betrayed by an envious friend or relative. Chiro did not interest me at all-- she was typical, I knew from the minute the jealousy aspect was brought up what would happen, and felt no satisfaction in being proven right. This was my only critique of the book; that part of the plot was predictable, and in the hands of a less talented writer, could have become downright boring. But in light of how wonderful the rest of the book is, I really can't complain too much.
In terms of queer themes and characters, there were none to speak of, unfortunately. But while I usually would maintain that a lack of gay characters is a flaw in a book, everything about Taylor's story and characters fits so well together, and feels so right, that I can't even object. Taylor could've made Zuzana gay, but something about the scene before the puppet show where Karou sees Zuze and her boyfriend together draws the parallel between Karou and Akiva so clearly and poignantly-- Karou is so grounded in the physical world that I'm not sure she would have felt it as keenly if Zuzana had been snuggling with a girl instead of a strong, handsome young man. Maybe I'm wrong, but it's just a feeling. I'm hopeful that there will be queer characters in the next installments (gay chimaera! would be so awesome!) but this is one of those rare books where I didn't even notice the lack of LGBTQ characters until I thought about it on purpose.
One last note, for those of you familiar with my raving over China Mieville's knack for treating the English language like Silly Putty in his hands-- Taylor has a similar gift. Her language is rich and delightful, and her words paint pictures that last, from Zuzana's eerie puppet show to Brimstone's workshop to Prague, almost a character in its own right, vivid with color and scent. I wanted to book a flight before I was ten pages into the book.
Bottom line: Daughter of Smoke and Bone isn't just a book for fantasy geeks-- it's just a good book, period. My friend said "Emily, it was made for you," and she was kind of right. It has all the elements I love in a good fantasy story-- a feisty female protagonist, a set of flawed and three-dimensional supporting characters, an interesting romance that doesn't supersede the plot of the story but plays into it, a vividly painted setting, and a plot I have no hope of predicting. If you like good urban fantasy that melds magic and reality until you can't tell which is which, get this book. Be ready for a beautiful ride when you pick it up, and don't be surprised if you end up pulling an all-nighter to finish it.