“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”
The “angels” and “devils” of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone (2011) are not quite what those words would lead you to expect, but are given an original twist. The angels are closer to the angels we know — specifically the fearsome, fiery warrior type of angel, not the gauzy kind that helps adorable children cross bridges. They differ from the popular conception of angels in that they’re placed in a religious context of Taylor’s own invention. Their enemies are the chimaera, a race of human/beast hybrids whom the angels revile as demonic. These two races dwell in the realm of Eretz, parallel to our own world, where a war has raged between them since time immemorial.
But Karou knows nothing of this, not yet. Karou is a young girl living in Prague, dividing her time between the bohemian life of an art student and an even stranger secret life. She was raised by chimaera. Her guardian is the enigmatic Brimstone, who often calls upon her to help him collect teeth. Some of the teeth are used to fuel wishes. Others… well, Brimstone keeps his secrets, even from Karou.
I first experienced Taylor’s beautiful writing in 2009’s Lips Touch: Three Times, a collection of three original fairy tales (which you should all go read right now, if you haven’t already). It was such a pleasure getting to sink into her prose again as she unfolded Karou’s world. Prague comes to life in all its quirky beauty, and the scenes in Brimstone’s shop are so visual and so detail-rich and so odd that reading them feels like walking into a Brian Froud painting. Here’s one favorite passage:
The first time she’d come to Prague, she’d gotten so lost exploring these streets. She’d passed an art gallery and a few blocks later doubled back to find it, and… couldn’t. The city had swallowed it. In fact, she had never found it. There was a deceptive tangle of alleys that gave the impression of a map that shifted behind you, gargoyles tiptoeing away, stones like puzzle pieces rearranging themselves into new configurations while you weren’t looking. Prague entranced you, lured you in, like the mythic fey who trick travelers deep into forests until they’re lost beyond hope. But being lost here was a gentle adventure of marionette shops and absinthe, and the only creatures lurking around corners were Kaz and his cohorts in vampire makeup, ready with a silly thrill.
There’s humor too:
“It’s not like there’s a law against flying.”
“Yes there is. The law of gravity.”
At first I worried that Karou would turn out to be a Mary Sue, since Taylor occasionally pans out to an omniscient point of view to tell us that Karou is beautiful, or that Karou is a mystery even to her friends. I needn’t have worried. Though she is beautiful and has blue hair, Karou is a fully rounded character with a balance of virtues and flaws and Taylor allows her to make mistakes. She’s an endearing mix of loyalty and resourcefulness and whimsy — and a touch of pettiness and immaturity. I loved her to bits.
The other aspect of Daughter of Smoke & Bone that had me worried was the romance. One of the trends that annoys me in paranormal YA is insta-love, in which two people become eternal soulmates without really getting to know each other first. A warrior angel, Akiva, comes into Karou’s life, and though they at first see each other as enemies, a connection is forged and they fall in love. In a lesser novel, this would descend into cliché and the relationship would be one of sugarcoated perfection, with no conflict other than maybe a contrived metaphysical rule to keep them apart, or a second love interest tossed in to create drama. But this is not a lesser novel. There is much more going on than you might think. And when conflict does arise between Karou and Akiva, it is not sugarcoated; it is not sanitized. It’s tragic, and it’s real. I think Taylor may even be commenting upon the insta-love trope with this novel. When you fall in insta-love, she seems to say, there are things about that person that you simply don’t know yet.
The full extent of this conflict only reveals itself at the very end, in a twist that will knock the breath out of you and cast all the book’s previous events in a new light. The most crucial event in the story actually occurs pretty early in the page count, but it’s only later that you learn what actually happened and what it means. The map shifts behind you. The puzzle pieces rearrange themselves. Right after finishing, the first thing I did was read that big reveal again, as if it would say something different this time. Then I found myself thumbing back to previous scenes and rereading them, finally understanding their true meaning. I love books that rearrange themselves like this; last month I read a book that was unsatisfying until it was reinterpreted by a twist, and from that point on I enjoyed the book. In the case of Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I’d probably have given it four and a half stars even without the twist, and even with the insta-love, because of the sheer beauty of the prose and the intricate mystery of Karou and her world. With the twist ending, it becomes one of the most memorable fantasy novels I’ve ever read.
Also striking is the theme of prejudice. So much of the plot hinges on the hatred between the angels and the chimaera. This is a story about how two groups can be locked in a war that neither side really wants to fight anymore, but the hate is too entrenched for either side to find peace palatable. It’s a story about how people can dehumanize an Other in order to justify atrocities. It’s a story about how sometimes falling in love with a member of a hated race can make you see all of them in a new light — and sometimes it just makes you see that one person as the exception. It’s a story about how an unexamined privilege — one that seems minor to the one who possesses it — can poison a friendship. But there’s also a hint of hope that a better world might be attainable. I don’t think it’s an accident that Ellai’s garden reads so much like an Eden.
In retrospect, I can see a few seeds of Daughter of Smoke & Bone in Lips Touch: Three Times. I’m reminded of “Goblin Fruit” in that Karou is the kind of woman Kizzy would have loved to be, and in the gutsy, gut-punch ending. I’m reminded of “Hatchling” in that the story begins with eccentric people in a real-world city but quickly becomes much more high-fantasy than one might expect. There’s another similarity to “Hatchling,” too, but it’s a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find that one.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone is what I wish more paranormal YA novels could be. I may sometimes seem to be down on paranormal YA, but I don’t inherently dislike it. In fact, I like it very much, at least in theory, and so I want it to be good. So often, too often, it’s not. Daughter of Smoke & Bone really is that good. Just go read it already. It’s the first in a new trilogy (though it has its own complete story arc) and I’m dying for the next book.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone is an unusually good YA-ish (see content advisory below) fantasy: lyrical, intricately plotted, well-written, moving, bittersweet, and just plain different than the run-of-the-mill fantasy. I really enjoyed reading it; I just wish it were a stand-alone book. It doesn’t exactly end on a cliff-hanger but the story is clearly unresolved. So those hoping for a Happily Ever After ending will have to wait and hope that the third book will wrap up the story in a way that isn’t too much of a downer.
Content advisory: There is nothing explicit, but the main character discusses having lost her virginity to a good-looking jerk, and in the flashbacks she spends several nights with her lover.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor, author of Daughter of Smoke & Bone, starts us off with a standard urban fantasy look. Her heroine, Karou, has tattoos, bullet wound scars and blue hair. She is trained in martial arts and frequently leaves her art school in Prague to “run errands” that take her all across the globe. Demon hunter, right? In fact, Karou is something very different, and Daughter of Smoke & Bone is one of the freshest fantasies I’ve read in a long time.
Taylor confounds expectations at almost every turn. There are demons, there are angels, there is a war and an incandescent love story, but none of it unfolds as I expected.
Karou, she of the plaintive wolf’s-call of a name, is seventeen. She has her own apartment, a handsome ex-boyfriend who won’t get the hint, a wonderful best friend named Zuzana, and a very strange foster family. Before I even got into the otherworldly parts of the book, I was captivated by the relationship between Karou and Zuzana. These are teenaged girls at their best: funny, witty, perceptive, sometimes unsure of themselves, creative, smart and loyal.
Soon, though, the book introduces Akiva, a supernaturally beautiful man with eyes like amber fire and gleaming feathered wings. It isn’t too long before his life and Karou’s intersect. Mortal enemies? Star-crossed lovers? Soul-mates? All of the above? The book lets the innocent Karou and the tortured Akiva discover those answers for themselves.
Taylor is a master of pacing, and part of the delight of this book is the assuredness of the prose. Taylor is a beautiful writer and a disciplined storyteller. Several times throughout the book I would catch my breath at a description or witty bit of dialogue, but Taylor also managed to keep her gorgeous prose largely transparent. The words are put in service to the story, not vice versa. The controlled pacing and the masterful writing let Taylor play with serious themes without getting heavy-handed — and there are serious themes addressed here, like the impact of war, and ethnic hatred. The book does not provide a simplistic “love conquers all” answer. The problems Karou and Akiva face are real. They are deep. The dramatic and powerful ending proves just how real and deep those problems are.
Kelly Lasiter’s review (above) whet my appetite for this book, and I was not disappointed. I enjoyed this book so much that it scared me, because Taylor has set the bar very high for book two. The skill level she demonstrates here makes me trust her, though. I recommend this book for any young person you know who enjoys fantasy — and for you, and your friends.
I loved everything about this book — the magic system, the characters, the plot. I thought the characterization was especially good.
I was introduced to Laini Taylor through her three-story anthology Lips Touch: Three Times and was completely entranced by her imagery, ideas and use of language. When I spotted Daughter of Smoke & Bone at the bookshop, I therefore snapped it up without even reading the blurb. Some writers are just that appealing, and my faith was rewarded as I got exactly what I expected: four nights of intoxicating reading.
Seventeen year old Karou is an art-student in Prague who leaves a double-life. On the one hand she attends class, hangs out with her best friend, and tries to avoid the attention of an irritating ex-boyfriend; on the other, she’s an errand girl to a strange creature who collects teeth. Brimstone – who has a ram’s head, man’s torso, reptile’s feet and crocodile eyes – lives in a realm that Karou refers to as “Elsewhere”, a place hidden behind a perfectly innocuous-looking door where Brimstone and other mismatched creatures like him sort through a myriad of teeth. They’re the only family that Karou has ever known, and her task is to fetch shipments of teeth from around the world, travelling to far-flung places through their network of portals.
The catch is that she has no idea where she comes from, who her parents are, or why her unusual family collects teeth. And then one day everything changes. After noticing that black handprints are appearing on the doors to the portals around the world, Karou is attacked by what can only be described as an angel. She manages to escape, and whilst recovering in Elsewhere, she is overcome by temptation and explores their lair further. What she discovers changes everything she’s ever known about herself and her life, and from that point on she’s driven to expose the mystery of her own existence.
It’s hard to say too much more, as the plot of Daughter of Blood & Bone is entirely based upon the enigmas that surround Karou’s life, most of which are gradually unravelled as the story unfolds. The enjoyment is derived from discovering the answers to her strange existence and how they affect the current goings-on across the world.
There may be a few initial eye-rolls from the reader as to Karou’s characterization: let’s see – she has hair that grows naturally blue, tattoos on her palms that never fade, is adept in martial arts, fluent in dozens of languages, and is a source of fascination for several supporting characters. Likewise, the second protagonist (Akiva the seraph) is described as astoundingly beautiful, a noble warrior, and tragically heart-broken. Yup, he’s a Magical Angel Boyfriend (as opposed to the usual Magical Vampire Boyfriend), so to say that there isn’t a fair bit of fantasy-escapism going on would be lying. However, I think criticizing the oh-so-unique and flawless heroes is to miss the point a little. Daughter of Smoke & Bone is framed very much as a fairytale or a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and the characterization reflects that. Karou and Akiva are in no way meant to resemble “real” people – they are larger-than-life archetypes with a few quirks thrown in.
That said, one has to admit that the romance between the two of them is rather thin, and given the emphasis on their beauty and physicality, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that most superficial of all contemporary love stories: Bella and Edward. It’s not a book-breaking flaw, but there’s no real indication as to why they’re so in love, and the portrayal of the “tragic, epic, glorious” bond between two such star-crossed lovers rings a little false. Still, at least Karou is more proactive and self-possessed than Bella ever was and, thankfully, the two of them have goals that go beyond their infatuation with each other. As the back-story gradually reveals, they are on different sides of a war. Unlike Romeo and Juliet however, they actually want to do something to *change* this.
The book’s strengths are in its mysterious premise and its extensive world-building. Taylor presents a realm in which seraphim wage war against chimaera with consequences that spill out into our own world, where a single door can lead to hundreds of different locations, where wishes are corporeal and used as currency, and where souls can be resurrected into new bodies if the right measures are taken. It’s a feast for the imagination, and Taylor’s writing is lyrical and evocative enough to make it an engrossing read, very rarely tipping into purple prose. Her pacing for the first two-thirds of the book is excellent, though it slows a little in the final third, which is essentially an extended flashback sequence designed to explain the immediate attraction between Karou and Akiva, one which really isn’t enough to justify their relationship.
But not every story has to excel on every level. Daughter of Smoke & Bone is an entertaining piece of fiction that seems to deliberately strive for stock characters and circumstances, but is carried by its delicate poetic-prose and complex world-building. Depending on your preferences, you’ll find this tolerable or frustrating, so keep in mind the book’s purpose: it’s readable and escapist romance/fantasy, with a cliff-hanger ending that’ll probably do its job in making you mark down the release date of the second book. I know I’ll be reading it – not for the resolution of the romance, but for what follows in the war between seraphim and chimaera.