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Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
Daughter of Smoke & Bone #1

Little, Brown & Company 2011
Hardback
418 pages
YA Fantasy


Once upon a time,
an angel and a devil fell in love.

It did not end well.

Karou is far from being an ordinary seventeen year old girl. It’s not just her blue hair, or the creative characters she draws in her sketchbooks and the stories she makes up to go along with them. It’s not even that she’s always disappearing, and no one can ever get a straight answer to a question about her private life. It’s the fact that her hair is blue because she wished it that colour; the monstrous characters she draws in her sketchbooks are all real beings; and she’s always disappearing because Brimstone, her father-figure, sends her on errands around the world to collect teeth, usually animal but also human.

She grew up in a shop, a very unusual shop. One not in the human world but reached through magical portals that look like ordinary doors on the outside. Inside the shop, Brimstone – with ram’s horns, ovine nose, crocodile eyes, human arms and torso heavily scarred, leonine legs and raptor clawed feet – spends hours bent over his desk, wearing jeweller’s glasses, feeling the teeth, separating out the good from the bad and putting together necklaces of them. Helping him at this task are three other chimaera: Twiga, with a long giraffe neck, and Issa, half-snake, and Yasri, parrot-beaked. And Karou, though she has always been kept in strict ignorance concerning their work, what exactly the chimaera are, whether there are more of them, and what’s behind the door at the back of the shop. But they are her family, and she loves them. They raised her from a newborn, and have always been generous to her.

Thanks to Brimstone’s wish-magic, Karou has collected over twenty languages, which she can speak fluently, has studied martial arts in Japan, and now attends an arts school in Prague. She has her own flat, hangs out with her best friend Zuzana, a marionette artist from Bavaria, and has just broken up with her cheating boyfriend Kazimir, a very handsome, very vain but not especially bright young man who aspires to be an actor. Karou is independent, resourceful, capable, intelligent, artistic, and beautiful, but she has always been alone. Amongst her chimaera family she is the odd one, the one kept in the dark. She can’t tell her friends about them, or her errands. But her loneliness is more than that: she has always felt like there is something missing inside her, like she’s not quite whole.

When the doors that double as portals to Brimstone’s shop begin to be marked with handprints, burned into the wood or metal, she’s too busy and tired running endless errands, collecting teeth, to think much of it. But that’s before she sees one of the creatures making those marks: a deadly angelic seraphim, an angel, a winged man with fiery eyes, so handsome it’s hard to believe. But as soon as he sees her, he gives chase and tries to kill her.

Everything in Karou’s life changes that day. She has a near-deadly encounter with an angel, discovers what’s on the other side of the mysterious door in Brimstone’s shop, and pays an awful price for the knowledge. When the angel, Akiva, turns up in her life again, apologising for attacking her, adamant that he doesn’t want to hurt her, something in her decides to give him a chance. Desperate to get back to Brimstone’s world, she discovers a friend in Akiva, an ally – until he helps show her who she really is, where she came from, and the truth of that other world where seraphim and chimaera fight an endless war.

Now this, THIS is what I’m talking about: fresh, original fantasy, rich and vivid and completely absorbing, it is my new favourite book. It should be shelved in adult fantasy as well as YA; it is mature, intelligent, thematically complex while being deceptively simple. Incorporating diverse elements of the fantasy genre to create a new story in a new setting, Taylor has written a book of exceptional power and beauty and sadness.

It’s hard to write a review of a book you love; your brain gets so excited it overheats like a car’s radiator and leaks fluid onto the ground. I have to really collect myself and focus in order to write anything helpful with as few review-cliches as possible. So tempting to just say, This was awesome, read it! Which I do say, but let me try and tell you why I loved this, and why I think so many other readers would also enjoy it. (It would have helped had I done this as soon as I finished it, when it was fresh.)

Karou was the best kind of heroine: well-developed, multi-faceted, talented and deadly but not invincible or invulnerable. Able to use her head as well as feel. She had none of the annoying character traits that pop up so often in YA fiction. As a teenager, she had that touch of provoking, obstinate hard-headedness and determination, especially with Brimstone, yet she wasn’t immature or unreliable, selfish or stupidly stubborn. Instead, she felt very alive, like someone I would want to know and befriend, familiar even. The loneliness and lack that she feels isn’t belaboured or overdone, not constantly in our faces, but simply there, a part of Karou.

Was there another life she was meant to be living? At times she felt a keen certainty that there was – a phantom life, taunting her from just out of reach. A sense would come over her while she was drawing or walking, and once when she was dancing slow and close with Kaz, that she was supposed to be doing something else with her hands, with her legs, with her body. Something else. Something else. Something else. [p.82]

There is such a nice layer of detail to the narrative, enough to flesh things out and give you a sense of time and place but not so much that it gets bogged down by it, or becomes slow. The pacing is even, smooth and fast without feeling fast – in the sense that, quite a lot happens even in the first few chapters, but it doesn’t feel like you’re being rushed.

The supporting cast of characters were also great. I loved Karou’s chimaera family, and my sympathies (as, I’m sure, they’re meant to be) lie with the chimaera, as the persecuted race. This endless war between species, fuelled at first with bigotry reminiscent of the white colonisers towards the Africans, has reached a point of being almost impossible to stop. The seraphim have found one way to end it, though, and I dread to read about what Karou will find there, what will be left. Whatever the situation may be for the chimaera, we’ve certainly entered into a new stage in the war, one that leans closer to genocide.

The magic aspect of the story is fresh and fun; I had no idea what the bones were for and couldn’t guess (in fact, so clever is the writing that I barely even stopped to think about it: the necklaces of bones were small details, and Karou’s errands, and the visitors to the shop, somehow directed your attention elsewhere). The inventiveness, of the magic and also of the chimaera themselves, was fantasy at its best. Likewise, the seraphim proved more interesting, more complex, than they at first appear. You are led to think, oh great, another story about demons and angels – and, for me, the worry that it’s going to be confined to a classical biblical kind of angel, like plenty of other stories. But the seraphim may be winged, but their feathers burn. They may be beautiful, but they are cruel. They are superior because they have decreed that they are superior, and in the way we are familiar with: by colonising, by invading, conquering and “civilising” another land of disparate peoples and tribes and cultures. It is a very fine, extreme analogy of the human world.

I didn’t mark any stand-out quotes – I was enjoying the story too much to slow down and remember to do that. It is very well-written, in structure, plotting, character development, world-building, all of it. I haven’t mentioned Madrigal yet, mostly because I didn’t see how without giving things away, but I’ll just say that I loved how her voice subtly changed after her revelation, how she is the same but not quite, not really. The stories of the past meshed with the revelation of the present. I could understand, and even sympathise, with Akiva’s actions, too. Such is the strength of these characters, who seem at first to be black-and-white but are in fact deep shades of grey. The more I learned about Akiva, the more I liked him and the more torn I was by the end. How that will be resolved I can’t imagine! But I definitely want to read to find out.

The second book in the series, Days of Blood & Starlight, is due out on 6th November 2012 and is available for preorder.

_______________________________

Other Reviews:

“…I was swept away by Laini Taylor’s scrumptious prose. […] I love this whole concept. This whole battle of good and evil that may not be so black and white. I love that there are consequences for the characters. I love that this does not sacrifice writing for action and vice versa. I love that I have a true sense of Karou, her friends, and Akiva, her love interest.” Good Books & Good Wine

“Wow. Just wow. I can’t believe I waited so long to pick this book up. It’s amazing. It is 432 of pure joy to read.” Emily’s Crammed Bookshelf

“I loved this book! The action was fast-paced and exciting, the story of love and hope of peace between warring races is sweet and lovely, and the romantic scenes were rather swoon-worthy.” The Oaken Bookcase

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