Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor
I’m having a hard time reviewing Lips Touch: Three Times. Intelligent language seems to be failing me. I don’t want to write a review so much as I want to jump up and down and squeal like a crazed fangirl. Lips Touch is chocolate in book form. It’s dark, it’s rich, it’s delicious, and it’s precisely to my taste.
Lips Touch is a collection of three stories; the common theme, as you might guess from the title, is the kiss. In fairy tales, a kiss is often the catalyst for transformation. Laini Taylor is, without a doubt, writing fairy tales here. From the threads of older stories, she weaves new tales that have all the power of the old.
The first story, “Goblin Fruit,” is set in the present day and features an unpopular high school student, Kizzy, whose unfulfilled longings make her easy prey for malevolent spirits:
Kizzy wanted to be a woman who would dive off the prow of a sailboat into the sea, who would fall back in a tangle of sheets, laughing, and who could dance a tango, lazily stroke a leopard with her bare foot, freeze an enemy’s blood with her eyes, make promises she couldn’t possibly keep, and then shift the world to keep them. She wanted to write memoirs and autograph them at a tiny bookshop in Rome, with a line of admirers snaking down a pink-lit alley. She wanted to make love on a balcony, ruin someone, trade in esoteric knowledge, watch strangers as coolly as a cat. She wanted to be inscrutable, have a drink named after her, a love song written for her, and a handsome adventurer’s small airplane, champagne-christened Kizzy, which would vanish one day in a windstorm in Arabia so that she would have to mount a rescue operation involving camels, and wear an indigo veil against the stinging sand, just like the nomads.
Kizzy’s best hope of fighting off the goblins’ influence is her late grandmother, who, as a girl, rescued her sister as Lizzie saved Laura in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. Her spirit lingers near Kizzy still, as a protective influence. The ending of this story knocked the wind out of me. I should have seen it coming, but didn’t. I liked that, ultimately, the actual fruit offered to Kizzy was almost irrelevant. It’s the temptations you’re not expecting that you have to worry about…
Next is “Spicy Little Curses Such As These,” set in colonial India. An old woman makes a deal with a demon, the effects of which threaten to destroy a young couple’s budding romance. There are echoes of Hindu and Greek myths here, though I can’t say what myths without spoiling the most delightful plot twist in the story! I thought I knew where Taylor was going with this story, and braced myself for the ending I thought was coming, and then little details started sifting their way back into my mind. A hint here, a scrap of foreshadowing there, and suddenly things looked quite different! This was probably my favorite of the three tales.
The final tale, “Hatchling,” is the longest story. It deals with a race of cold, beautiful beings called the Druj, inspired by the less-Disneyfied legends of the faerie folk:
Druj live forever and have forever lived. There are no new Druj, no young Druj, no ripe bellies, no babes. If their race began as infants, that history was lost in ancient books, swallowed by fire or mold. As for their memories, they have proven unfit for immortality. They recede into a lake of mist, revealing nothing. They have no legends, not even of a time before the forests grew. Nothing has ever been new, least of all themselves. To an ancient folk dulled by eternity, children are a revelation.
That’s why they keep them as pets.
Esme and her mother, Mab, have lived in hiding for fourteen years, ever since Mab escaped the Druj’s clutches while pregnant with Esme. Now, the Druj have found them, and they want Esme, for reasons that unfold slowly and are more complex than you might think. This story’s plotline is fascinating, and it’s filled with harsh, chilly imagery that matches the Druj themselves.
I adored Lips Touch overall, and I don’t think it would be hyperbole to say that this, along with Louise Hawes‘ Black Pearls, is some of the best fairy-tale writing I’ve seen in years. Fans of writers like Angela Carter and Tanith Lee should take notice. Laini Taylor is going places, with her moving tales and her lush yet piercing prose. As I said, it’s kind of like literary chocolate, or to put it in Taylor’s own words:
“Well, okay,” Kizzy said, feigning reluctance and unwrapping one of the chocolates. It was so dark it was almost black and it melted on her tongue into an ancient flavor of seed pod, earth, shade, and sunlight, its bitterness casting just a shadow of sweet. It tasted… fine, so subtle and strange it made her feel like a novitiate into some arcanum of spice.
Lips Touch also features illustrations by Taylor’s husband, Jim di Bartolo. My copy is an ARC and doesn’t contain all the artwork that will be featured in the finished book; some is still blank and some is labeled “not final.” But from what I can see, the illustrations are going to be beautiful and fitting for the stories.
Soul Meets Soul on Lover’s Lips…
Although it’s been a while since Kelly reviewed Lips Touch: Three Times, (above) her enthusiasm for it obviously made an impact, for whilst I was browsing through the YA section of my local library, I saw a familiar-looking face staring up at me. It was the cover art for Laini Taylor’s book, an image which had clearly been stored away somewhere in the back of my mind, waiting for me to recognize it in the real world. And so, a few years later, I settle down to take Kelly’s recommendation. I’ve ended up with the same bouncy enjoyment, and can’t wait to track down more of Laini Taylor’s work.
Here Taylor has written three gloriously rich and atmospheric fairytales, reasonably short, but beautifully told. If Lips Touch was food, it would be dark chocolate; if it was music, it would be a haunting violin solo; and it’s one of those books that forbid you from rushing through it — you’ll want to savour every word. Taylor uses immensely evocative language in her telling of these stories, and the words glide like syrup over the page. Okay, I’ll quit with the analogies. Suffice to say, Taylor knows how to turn a phrase.
Each of the three tales involves a familiar motif of old folklore: the allure of faerie food, the tithe to hell, and the changeling tale, though Taylor adds unexpected twists to all three of them. As she says at the back of the book: “like a magpie, I am a scavenger of shiny things: fairy tales, dead languages, weird folk beliefs, fascinating religions, and more,” resulting in stories that resonate but still feel fresh and new. The connecting theme in all three stories is (as the title would imply) the significance placed upon a kiss. Though each story is set in a different time, with a different girl in a radically different situation, all are linked by their anticipation for a first kiss and the consequences — for good or for bad — that follow.
The first is “Goblin Fruit,” a modern-day version of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” which introduces us to teenaged Kizzy, a quirky but unpopular girl who (like many teenage girls) hates her life. Coming from a bizarre family that ascribe to an old-fashioned lifestyle, Kizzy’s deep longing for something more — something indefinable — is so pronounced that it leaves a tangible trail of yearning in the air. This attracts the attention of goblins, one of whom approaches her in the guise of a beautiful new boy at school, enticing her to eat of his goblin fruit. The warning signs are all there, but can Kizzy withstand the temptation? Or does her desire for change run too deep?
“Spicy Little Curses Such As These” is set in colonial India, and though it is based on the concept of “tithe,” in which money and souls are freely bartered between mortals and demons, Taylor draws upon the Hindu concept of Heaven and Hell, in which Hell is not a punishment, but a place of purification before reincarnation takes place. With this format in mind, we learn about a battle of wits that takes place between the demon Vasudev and earth’s Ambassador to Hell, a widow called Estelle. She rescues the souls of children in exchange for those of murderers, rapists, slavers, and the like. But Vasudev is a trickster and is constantly trying to best Estelle in their exchanges, in one case offering to save the lives of twenty-two children if Estelle agrees to curse just one. She agrees to this bargain, and (much like the wicked fairy from “Sleeping Beauty”) interrupts the christening of an English baby called Anamique in order to tell the assembly that one word from the newborn child will result in the death of anyone that hears her.
The superstitious Indian servants ensure that Anamique remains silent throughout her childhood, but once she’s a young woman, the temptation to speak grows ever stronger, especially when she meets and falls in love with James Dorsey, and he with her. Resolving that her first word will be “yes” should he ever ask her to marry him, Vasudev and Estella take measures in order to prevent or ensure this happening — though ultimately it is up to Anamique herself to make the choice.
Finally, “Hatchling” is the longest story of the bunch (perhaps twice as long as the preceding stories put together) and follows an array of characters and mysteries. Fourteen year old Esme lives a strange and sheltered life with her mother Mab, never attending school and barely interacting with anyone. On the day that she’s woken by the sound of howling wolves she discovers that one of her brown eyes has turned blue overnight. Inexplicably terrified by this, her mother cuts off her braid and takes her daughter into hiding, convinced that they are being chased.
Chased or not, they are certainly being followed, by a demon-like figure called Mihai, who has a vested interest in Esme. What can it all mean? Esme gradually learns of her mother’s history: that she was born and raised in the court of the Druj Queen, a beautiful but merciless woman whose capricious nature manifests in her treatment of the children in her care. They are cosseted and then neglected, until finally they are “bred” throughout the successive generations in order to provide her with a new “pet.”
It’s creepy and even disturbing stuff, but this world is not ruled entirely by the whims of such soulless creatures. Mihai has a secret, one that he has kept within Esme herself, one that could change the fate of the Druj forever.
Sometimes you come across a book that feels as though it’s been written and designed especially for you. As someone who loves dark fairytales and folklore, “Lips Touch” was one such book. Laini Taylor is in a class alongside Angela Carter, Charles de Lint, Susanna Clarke and Meredith Anne Pierce as a writer who can draw upon the oldest of stories, place them in an original setting, populate them with unique characters, and tell them with beautifully lyrical and descriptive writing.
Supplementing each story are illustrations done by Taylor’s husband, Jim di Bartolo. Reminiscent of Charles Vess, his artwork is evocative and dramatic; more importantly, they help to tell the stories. There is a collection of illustrations before each story, pertaining to the backstory of the characters and obscure in meaning until you read the tale through to its end. Each one finishes on an image that hints as to the future the characters have in store for them, and altogether they make a beautiful visual complement to the text.
Unfortunately, the cover art for the paperback edition is horrendous, forgoing di Bartolo’s captivating image of a striking face (which could belong to any of the three female leads) in favour of pair of red lips in a style that is clearly attempting to mimic the TWILIGHT covers. No. Just no. Treat yourself to a beautiful book, and buy in hardcover.
You crack me up. I’ll have to recommend this to my niece. It sounds like it would be just her taste.
Daves kratom is really really really fresh. we have been looking my whole life for this…I hope they don’t ban it…