"Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.
When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?" (from Goodreads)
I tried so many times to read this book. I kept picking it up, reading the first few chapters, going, "This is SO WEIRD," and putting it down. However, finally I just started reading it in very short sittings — we're talking, a chapter or so at a time, maybe less — and eventually I got into it!
Karou: I didn't connect that well with Karou, especially in the beginning. She marches to the beat of her own drummer, and can be ruthless and brusque. Despite the fact that she doesn't like to let too many people in, though, she has a strong sense of loyalty to friends and "family". However, as the story progresses and we find out more about Karou I got a little more on board with her character. But I'm still not sure I'd want to be friends with her (and I suspect she probably wouldn't want to be friends with me!). She's quite independent and likes it that way, which is why this bond with Akiva, which takes her quite by surprise, is so important to her character development as she opens up to someone and lets her emotions take hold of her.
Akiva: Things get more interesting once Akiva becomes involved. He's a broody "Rochester" type — although that's about the only comparison to Jane Eyre one can really make with this book — with all these dark regrets about the past. I liked his haunted character, despite the fact that I think he occasionally plays it up a little much, as though he enjoys wallowing in what he thinks is his own undeservingness.
Karou & Akiva: Their relationship is somewhat "insta-love", but at the same time, it's believable — they have a shared past so there's an immediate bond they sense that they don't understand at first. Karou and Akiva are good foils for each other; they're very different in some ways, she being bubbly and full of life, and — despite how she might wish to see herself — still quite youthful and naive in comparison to Akiva. She doesn't have memories of war, suffering and loss the way he does, and her personality balances well with Akiva's darker, more somber temperament. And I have to admit, I've got a soft spot for the forbidden-love-across-battlelines kind of romance.
Everyone else: I don't actually have that much to say about the rest of the characters. I wasn't a big fan of Zuzana. It seemed at the outset that Kaz was going to have a large role, and then he barely featured in it at all (though I think he is instrumental in shaping Karou's attitude). I discuss the chimaera more below, but apart from being a little fond of Kishmish — he was cute, and it's a shame what happened to him — I wasn't particularly attached to any of them. Razgut was creepy, vile in a pitiful kind of way; he's an interesting character in that he's not a villain or an enemy, but at the same time he's not someone you'd voluntarily wish to hang out with.
We're given a straightforward but thought-provoking magic system in Daughter of Smoke & Bone. I am always so pleased to see when a fantasy novel actually has rules for magic, and Laini Taylor delivers: the magic doesn't POOF out of nowhere here, but instead has a (very interesting) source. I don't tend to like reincarnation stories, but I thought that aspect of this book (I'm not going to give away specifics) actually made sense: there's a rhyme and reason to the methodology. I would like to know more of the details of the process, but perhaps we will see that in the sequels.
The world of "Elsewhere" is very richly realized, complete with detailed description and history. It hasn't just been cobbled together piecemeal, but rather, the whole world feels like it's actually there. I thought Karou's world could have used more description, but the exotic locales chosen — Prague, Morocco — serve well as a backdrop for the magical goings-on. Somehow, I just don't see it working in a city like New York or Vancouver, that screams "modern." Prague is steeped in history, so it seems more plausible to set it there — a wise choice on the author's part.
The portrayals of angels and "devils" are fresh and different; this is not your average paranormal YA angel story. The chimaera creatures themselves I found kind of weird and creepy, and very odd to visualize with all their preposterous and bizarre animal body-part combinations. I had some trouble keeping the various chimaera straight; some, like Issa, Kishmish, and Brimstone, were easier to remember than ones like Twiga and Yasri. Some more repetition of their descriptions would have helped here. Plus, as I have mentioned before, I'm not one for talking animals. Suffice it to say the chimaera weren't my favourite part of this book.
After I got into the story, it went by pretty quickly until part 3, where all of a sudden we're flooded with a whole lot more backstory, including new characters, expanded world-building, and plenty of history. This section felt denser and the pacing slowed, and while I liked the legend-like quality of the story (complete with whirlwind romance and betrayal), this meant part 3 was not my favourite. I preferred the preceding interactions between Karou and Akiva, when they're learning about each other.
There actually isn't that much action in Karou's story — it's more about her finding out information. When significant action does occur in part 3, it fails to bring tension with it, since the reader knows everything's going to turn out more or less okay (can't explain this too much without spoiling it, but you'll understand if you read it). It's almost as though, with part 3, the book veers off in a different direction than it had originally pointed, and the climax — if you can call it that — is all about Karou and the reader becoming aware of important events in the past. That said, I did like the ending — a wedge is driven between Karou and Akiva, but it's understandable. Many series follow this kind of pattern of creating conflict in the romantic relationship, but some only use a frivolous means — like making one of the characters jealous, for instance. Thankfully the way it's handled here actually provides a decent reason for contention between Karou and Akiva.
The quality of the writing is high, although the style itself is not really my typical cup of tea. Laini Taylor excels at a poetic style of writing exhibited in her lush descriptions of "Elsewhere" and the lyrical storytelling that accompanies them. In the sections set in the modern world, however, she relies more on slang and sense of humour (which unfortunately was not my kind of humour, by and large). The author manages to create meaning through interesting, sometimes unexpected use of words and metaphors, rather than relying on cliches.
Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. This isn't a favourite or comfort read for me, or even my usual style, but it's well-written, different and creative. There's some depth in themes and plotting that standard YA paranormal novels don't have, reflecting that the author's put some thought into it. The dark tinge to the story, along with the fantastical imaginings and the notions of sacrifice and prices to be paid, makes me think that fans of Neil Gaiman, particularly fans of his book Neverwhere, would appreciate Daughter of Smoke & Bone. I have the feeling this story is meant to be discomfiting and disquieting — and that it accomplishes quite well.
Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.