One of my blogging goals for this year is to work on whittling down my TBR pile of review copies from last year’s Book Expo America. From the moment that I began reading Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke & Bone,” I was enthralled. Taylor builds a magical world reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere“–simultaneously menacing and full of wonder.
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.
Karou is a teenage art student growing up in Prague. She fills her sketchbooks with drawings of chimera, half-human half-animal creatures. Karou’s friends believe that she’s eccentric, evidenced by her stories, her blue hair, and her tattoos, but Karou has a secret. Her hair really does grow that way, and the chimera that she draws just so happen to be her adopted family. Every week, she slips through a door into another world, where a chimera named Brimstone traffics in teeth and wishes. His shop is guarded by Issa, who makes customers wear one of her snakes around their necks to keep them from stepping out of line. Karou runs errands for Brimstone in the human world, but is forever frustrated by his vague answers to her questions about his world.
One day, an angel falls from the sky. He’s on a mission as part of an ancient war between the angels and the chimera. When he sees Karou, he is captivated by her, feeling himself drawn to her even though she is associated with his enemies.
Karou finds herself caught between two sides in the battle between the angels and the chimera. She envisions a world of peace, where the two sides live in harmony. Is she too late to stop the carnage and protect the people she loves?
I can’t stop gushing about how much I love this book. Karou has such a strong personality and sense of wonder, and it’s almost tragic to see that innocence get stripped away as she learns more about the ultimate price of magic. She realizes that Brimstone’s vagueness was a way of protecting her innocence and giving her a childhood, as generations of war have destroyed the fabric of both chimera and angel society. Regardless of who is right or wrong (and we see very clearly that the chimera are justified in their revolt against the angels), we see the very real impact of a prolonged war that has jaded society to the point that a normal childhood or a walk in the city sound like mad and unreachable dreams.
As a YA novel, “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” tastefully tackles difficult subjects that teens face without being preachy about them. For example, Karou muses about regretting having slept with her ex-boyfriend when they were dating. She realizes that it was a mistake and that he was a complete jerk, bragging to his friends about an experience that she had expected to be private and special. At the same time, she learns from her mistake, and her life is in no way over. At another point, we see a character realize that she’s involved with someone because of his social position and the expectation that she’ll go along with it rather than because she actually likes him. Later in the book, we see a completely different kind of romance develop, where two characters are lovers, but have a respectful relationship that is enhanced by their physical connection. The author’s portrayal of teenage sexuality was refreshingly honest, and I liked that the emphasis was on mutual consent, respect, and trust, rather than on the flat stereotype of a fantasy prince.
If you love YA novels, magic, or books that make you think about the difference between how the world is and how it could be, then “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” is pure gold. Laini Taylor weaves a world inhabited by rich yet tragic characters, and I look forward to seeing them make their dreams a reality.