Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone was one of my favorite books last year, a sparkling, quirky gem of a fantasy. Karou, with her blue silk hair and the eyes on her palms, captivated me. The mysterious story ended darkly, but it was filled with humor and whimsy.
Days of Blood & Starlight has plenty of darkness, at least at the beginning. Karou has left Prague and her art student life and fled to Marrakesh, where she is helping her people, the chimaera, building magical bodies for their spirits to inhabit. Karou is grieving the murder of her family and the immolation of her love affair with Akiva, a seraph – the enemy of her people.
The most disturbing thing is that she has allied herself with Thiago, the White Wolf, the chimaera who tortured Akiva and executed Karou, in her previous incarnation as Madrigal.
This book is far grimmer than the first, and even the landscapes are starker, both in our world and in the land of Eretz, home of the chimaera. Taylor has taken on serious themes here; racial hatred, imperialism, terrorism, and she doesn’t pull her punches. For the first third of the book, Karou is isolated, vulnerable and doubt-ridden, nothing like the strong young woman we met in the first book. Fortunately, she is joined by her friends Zusana and Mik, who bring back some of the wild, irreverent joy we saw in Prague.
… For that matter, how many people ever got to buy a maybe-antique maybe-silver ring for their beautiful girlfriend in an ancient mud city in North Africa and eat dried dates out of a paper bag and see camel eyelashes for god’s sake… hey, where are all the people going?
Daughter of Smoke & Bone focused mostly on Karou and Akiva. Now, each of them must reach out to others, and we see more of Akiva’s brother and sister, Hazael and Lirez. We see more of Akiva’s hidden magical abilities developing, too, which actually begs a question from the back-story; if Akiva’s Stelian mother was so powerful, how was she captured and turned into a concubine? Perhaps this will be better addressed in the next book.
Taylor’s vision of the chimaera and a world at war is as crisp and vivid as ever. The obstacles between Karou and Akiva, and between Eretz and peace, seem convincingly insurmountable, and the book is suspenseful and dramatic. Karou and Zusana, art and performance students, understand the power of spectacle, and both of them realize what it will mean when the seraphim begin appearing on earth.
The pair of seraphim stood not a wingspan away, and their mythic, angelic perfection was everything the “beasts” were not. Karou saw them with her human eyes, this army she had rendered more monstrous than ever nature had, and she knew what the world would see in them if they flew to fight the Dominion; demons, nightmares, evil. The sight of the seraphim would be heralded as a miracle. But chimaera? The apocalypse.
Jael, a seraph commander, comes across as a James-Bond-style villain. The seraph emperor abuses his own people, and there is no compelling motivation for the seraphic drive to imperialism. I think the issues of the seraphim back-story will be better addressed in the next book, because we’ve been given a “sneak peak” of the Stelians, another group of seraphim, with whom the emperor wants a war.
Days of Blood & Starlight is a grim tale and suffers just a bit from second-book syndrome (let’s gather the forces), but it is still powerful and original. Karou and Akiva are two people on opposite sides of a millennium-old war, who are trying to join forces and do the right thing. And, they are trying desperately to hold onto their love. Karou means “hope” in the language of the chimaera, and at the end of the book, hope still lives.
It seems like ages since I’ve been able to sit down and really let myself get lost in a good book, and Days of Blood & Starlight certainly kept me riveted over four consecutive nights. What with its extensive world-building, tightly plotted story and immersive poetic-prose, Laini Taylor’s Paradise Lost meets Romeo and Juliet story is shaping up to be an unforgettable trilogy of redemption, sacrifice, love, war, hope and death. I’m already anticipating the final installment.
Keep in mind that this is the second book in a trilogy, and you don’t want to embark on Days of Blood & Starlight without first reading its predecessor, Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Containing plenty of mysteries that were unraveled over the course of its length, it introduced the blue-haired art student Karou, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives a strange double life. On the one hand, she goes to art school, hangs out with her friends and avoids a troublesome ex-boyfriend; on the other, she runs errands for a ram-headed creature who collects teeth and lives behind a miraculous door to a strange world that opens only for her.
Yeah, it sounds bizarre, but the reasoning behind everything from Karou’s blue hair to her guardian’s odd appearance, habits and backstory is explained fully by its end. Without giving too much away — because half the joy of the book is discovering the answers to the myriad of questions — Karou learns that she actually belongs to another world, one which is torn apart by a war between seraphs (angel-like humanoids) and chimeras (half human, half animal hybrids). After a tryst with a seraph-warrior called Akiva, Karou was executed as a traitor, but reincarnated in a human body in the hope that she might one day return home, rediscover her love, and bring peace to her people.
Having ended on a cliffhanger finish, Taylor soon brings us up to date with what our protagonists have been doing in the interim. Whilst exploring the remains of her old city, Karou is found by Thiago, the ruthless son of the chimeras’ warlord who puts her to work as the resurrectionist — that is, as the only person in the world with the know-how to transport the souls of deceased soldiers into brand new bodies: the chimeras’ secret weapon in the fight against the seraphs. Meanwhile, Akiva is reunited with his brother Hazael and sister Liraz, each of them the bastard children of the seraph Emperor, conceived solely for the purpose of becoming soldiers in his army. Guilt-ridden over his part in the death of Karou’s people, Akiva resolves to take his father’s life and stage a coup among the rest of his Misbegotten half-siblings.
Thus on different sides of the world as well as the conflict, Karou and Akiva each play their part in trying to prevent further bloodshed and bring the war to a close, all the while acutely aware that they might well be making matters worse with their actions. Each one has difficult decisions to make and each one is beset by enemies at every turn. But Taylor doesn’t restrict herself to their points-of-view; she expands her vision in order to visit various civilians, soldiers, prisoners, medics, victims, and even Karou’s best friend Zuzana and her boyfriend who are trying to track her down. Like most good war stories, Taylor is careful to include monsters and heroes on both sides, and it’s clear that the resolution of this conflict will not be in one side winning, but in both sides finding enough reason to call a ceasefire. How this is to be achieved remains a challenge for the final book to resolve.
One has to admire Taylor’s ambition in her world-building, for the depth and scope of Eretz and the history of the war between the two species is the highpoint of the novel. Having been introduced to her uniquely lyrical prose in her short-story collection Lips Touch Three Times, it was a true pleasure to become absorbed in the language and world that Taylor had constructed here. Neither does she stop at her own created world, for Planet Earth and its countries all play a part in the story, and by the end its history has changed forever. Though Days of Blood & Starlight is considerably darker than the previous book, with plenty of death and violence to go around, Taylor still retains her ability to provide detailed and vivid descriptions of the world around her.
If there is one thing that I could never really get invested in, it was the love affair between Akiva and Karou. Much like Romeo and Juliet upon whom they are based (the quintessential prototype of young lovers on opposing sides of a war), their love affair feels very shallow and sudden. That wouldn’t be so bad except that it’s the entire crux of the trilogy, even though I felt more of the bond between Akiva and his siblings and Zuzana and her boyfriend than I did between the would-be lovers. Taylor repeatedly tells us that the two of them are madly, painfully, devotedly in love and expects us to believe it, which lessons the impact of several revelations that threaten to tear them apart.
It’s an unfortunate flaw in what is otherwise a compelling story, but one that can be overlooked in favour of the far superior qualities of the storyline, language and world-building. Days of Blood & Starlight has a brisk pace and lively dialogue, plenty of twists and turns, intriguing characters and an ending that manages to be both uplifting and foreboding — and leaves you aching for the final instalment.
Oooh, it’s darker? I can’t wait. I liked the “dark” parts of the first book better than the romantic parts.
Then you should be pretty happy, Kelly!
I continue to believe that both Akiva and Karou are going to earn their chance at a real relationship and that they will both mature by the end of the book three. I’m willing to go with the “love at first sight” thing because they do have so much stacked against them.
I appreciate the fact that the love story has more at stake than just the hero/heroine getting together – they at least want to *use* their love in order to inspire peace between their people; but I *still* couldn’t quite believe that they’re so in love after so few interactions. That said, I’m still hoping that they’ll get their happy ending, as separately they’re quite compelling characters.