What do you get if you cross Paradise Lost with Romeo and Juliet? Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy, a story that centres on an epic war between angels and demons with a pair of star-crossed lovers caught in the middle. Only the angels and demons aren’t exactly what you’d expect. In the world of Eretz, “angels” are winged humanoids known as seraphim and the “demons” are half-human, half-animal hybrids known as chimaera. Their conflict has been going on for centuries — and has finally spilled over into our world.
When this third and final instalment begins, the world’s population is riveted on live footage of thousands of angels sweeping through the skies and descending upon Vatican City. Riots, vigils, baptisms, suicides and mass panic commence. In the midst of all this chaos, a young university student named Eliza Jones cannot help but feel that something is very wrong with the overly staged nature of the angels’ meeting with the Pope. From childhood she’s been plagued with terrifying nightmares, and after a government-ordered trip to Morocco with her professor reveals a startling find, she realizes she’s somehow linked to all these incredible events.
Meanwhile, our protagonists Karou and Akiva are facing the greatest challenge of their (extensive) lives: trying to forge an alliance between refugee chimera and renegade angels so that they might fight as a unified army against the seraphim invasion. Their desperate hope is that by stopping Jael, the commander of the seraphim forces, they’ll somehow be able to find a way to end the war and create a life together.
At this point, it seems redundant to outline either Karou or Akiva’s story-arcs. Their complicated history has been built-up over the course of two books, and you can’t simply jump into this final instalment before first reading its predecessors: Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight. Suffice to quote the epigram at the start of the story: “once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse” and you can easily infer the rest.
Although the odds seem impossible for Karou and Akiva, they have a secret weapon. Despite the superior numbers of seraphim, the chimaera have the ability to transfers souls from one body to another — and at the end of the previous book, the greatest chimaera general of all, the cruel and violent White Wolf Thiago, had his dead body reanimated with the soul of their most trusted ally: a chimaera youth called Ziri. It’s only by Ziri impersonating Thiago that they have a chance of convincing the rest of the chimaera that an alliance with Akiva’s “Misbegotten” legion (named so because of their status as the illegitimate offspring of the seraphim emperor) is possible.
As the culmination of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods and Monsters finishes most of what it set out to do. The novel very much revolves around two major points: the war between seraphim/chimaera and the love story of Karou and Akiva. Only by resolving the former can the latter have a chance at happiness, and Taylor deals with each plot in equal measure throughout the book’s considerable length.
This is not necessarily a good thing, as I’ll admit that I’ve never been fully sold on Karou and Akiva’s romance (it relied too much on telling and not showing) and their detailed love scenes throughout the novel’s length usually take place whilst FAR more important and interesting things are going on elsewhere. Though I give them credit for consistently placing the needs of others above their desire to be together (other supernatural YA couples are not as unselfish), I was far more invested in the pairing of Zuzana and Mik, Karou’s friends who manage to maintain their witty banter despite getting caught up in all the weird and wonderful events.
I think most readers will be satisfied with the conclusion that Dreams of Gods and Monsters offers, though some minor characters remain unaccounted for and there’s a sense of “ending fatigue” in the book’s final stretch. In an odd choice, the resolution of the seraphim/chimaera war is dealt with surprisingly early and easily (just over three quarters of the way through the book) leaving the reader with a lengthy wrap-up of the book’s third subplot which involves (VERY MINOR SPOILER HERE, highlight if you want to read it): a mysterious team of angels hunting Akiva for reasons that have something to do with the intense magic that he can summon. It’s a little out of left-field and introduces a brand new conflict in the last segment of the book that feels a little incidental.
But one of the joys of Laini Taylor’s writing is her poetic-prose, and her seemingly effortless ability to spin an elegant turn of phrase. In describing the wings of the angels she reports that “every feather was its own lick of fire” and that the after-effects of a nightmare were “still perched on her shoulder like a carrion bird”. Amusing chapter headings include “The Longest Five Minutes in History” and “Cake for Later,” and Zuzana’s continuous banter provides a certain amount of levity in the midst of the story’s darkest moments.
So I’m sad to see this trilogy end as I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It’s beautifully written, with plenty of great characters and incredible world-building, epic in scope and rich in creativity. Granted, I wasn’t totally enamoured with Karou and Akiva as a couple, but I enjoyed their individual struggles and their constant effort to do the right thing against impossible odds. But what I find most telling is the fact that on finishing this book, my first impulse is to go right back to the start of the trilogy and read it all over again, enjoying it anew with the power of hindsight and watching all the disparate threads come together over the course of the three complete books. The DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy is definitely an achievement, and I look forward to whatever Laini Taylor does next.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure Laini Taylor would be able to pull it off. Her DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE series had such scope and such a fundamental conflict between her two main characters that I wasn’t convinced she could pull it all together by Book Three, Dreams of Gods & Monsters. Fortunately, my doubts were unfounded. Taylor weaves together the strands, both dark and shining, of her fantasy narrative into a vivid and complete story.
Dreams of Gods & Monsters opens with a completely new character; Eliza Jones, a graduate student who is tormented by terrible dreams. These dreams are worse than nightmares. In them, Eliza knows that the Beasts are coming, terrible, destructive creatures, and that she is in some way responsible for bringing them. Eliza gets some help from her supportive roommate, Gabriel, but before her story unfolds too much more, something very distracting happens: one thousand angels appear in the sky, and land near the Vatican City.
Meanwhile, Karou, who has evolved from an art student in Prague to the resurrectionist of the remnants of the chimaera army, struggles with her ally Ziri and her human friends, Zusana and Mik, to forge a shaky alliance with Akiva, Liraz and the rest of their seraphim army, the Misbegotten. Since the seraphim have killed Chimaera and vice versa for centuries, this attempt is fraught with danger. The alliance, or détente, will only work because both sides are now under attack from the seraphim Jael, the usurper who took his battalion to Earth, posing as representatives of a deity, with a plan to get earth’s weapons of mass destruction.
As if things weren’t complicated enough, the chimaera also have to deal with the Stelians, although they don’t know that. Stelians are a society of seraphim whose grasp of magic is far beyond that of Akiva’s people. The Stelians had no fear of the self-styled seraphim emperor Joram and even less of the usurper Jael, but someone, or something, has them very worried. Their queen, Scarab, is ready to kill whatever it is that threatens their way of life, and she has the power to do it.
Taylor manages all these plot points and even expands the story, finally revealing the truth of the angels known as the Fallen, which brings us back to Eliza and her terrible dreams. As I read, I realized how well Taylor had planted the clues back in the first book, and nudged the storyline along until it got to the denouement without me even consciously noticing.
Taylor uses a writing style that, while not “light” exactly, is deliberately simple and often very modern. Zusana, Mik and Karou often drop into the almost-slang of the art students that they are. This means that the book flows quickly and that the heartbreaking scenes – and there are many – hit even harder in a way, because they are clearly and simply stated.
I did hit a couple of snags. While the issue with Jael and his battalion is resolved, I did wonder just where that leaves earth. Zusana and Mik wonder this too, and go back through one of the inter-dimensional portal to check on things, but Taylor never tells us what they discover in the aftermath. That seems like a big detail to drop, even though the force of the story is in the dimension of the Chimaera and seraphim. And, as a friend of mine said, as far as the love story goes, “You could make a drinking game out of how many times Karou and Akiva get interrupted during a tender moment.” Of course, this is expected in this kind of story, but I think maybe people burst in on them one too many times.
Overall, though, I was very pleased with this book. Taylor’s series addressed painful and serious issues of bigotry, racial hatred, and the power of physical appearance. She ended with a luminously optimistic resolution that wasn’t sappy. The characters have grown, but all is not shiny happiness ahead, or, as Karou and Zusana might say, “There isn’t going to be cake every day.” All of these characters have set a serious challenge for themselves in the future, but in Dreams of Gods & Monsters Taylor makes a convincing argument that the power of love and kindness can make any world a better place.
Dreams of Gods & Monsters is a bit of a sprawling wrap-up to the trilogy, but for my money the good in it easily outweighs the bad.
My beefs: New characters that unexpectedly become vital to the plot. New plotlines that unexpectedly twist the storyline in a different direction. A deus ex machina saving the day, and the characters, and the universe generally. Clearly I could have done with a little more foreshadowing in this novel. It would have made me happier to see some of this referenced in the prior books.
Also, there was a little bit of puzzling snarkiness about God and religion generally that I could have lived without. And there were some events at the end [highlight to view spoiler] when Karou and others are beginning the process of rebuilding the chimaera city and resurrecting their souls [end spoiler] that — even as long as this book already was — I thought begged for some additional story-telling. I wanted to know more about why Akiva was suddenly [highlight to view spoiler] “invisible to death”: was it wishes from Zuzana and Mik, or some new and unexplained manifestation of Akiva’s powers? [end spoiler] Finally, it takes forever for Karou and Akiva to get together: one thing after another happens to keep them apart, until I felt like I was reading a historical romance with too many author-manufactured obstacles to the Path of True Love.
Now that I’ve written all of that, it seems like a lot of complaining. But really, in the overall scheme of things this is a great trilogy and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy. I loved the characters, and I really love Laini Taylor’s lyrical writing. Some reviewers think it gets a little too try-hard, but her language makes me think. And feel.
This trilogy contains some excellent, creative world-building, and I was delighted to live in its world for a too-brief period of time. I truly hope there will be further stories of Eretz and its inhabitants.
Till then, Karou.