Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor – Book Review

It was foolish of me not to have realized (even just from the opening epigram: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”) what this book was going to be like. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is in the same genre as Twilight (and so many other young-adult, contemporary-fantasy novels) which adds supernatural elements to tales of young love. Karou is a young art student living in Prague. She has a slightly eccentric way about her (such as colouring her hair blue) but she’s still typical in many ways, concerned with the things that typically concern women her age: guys, friends, school work. Of course, she’s also got a second life that she accesses through magical portals which take her to a magical shop. The shop is owned by Brimstone, a dealer in wishes, and his assistants. They aren’t human (they’re called “chimaera”); they don’t even look human. Their bodies are a blend of animal and human parts: horns, wings, tails, and all manner of animal heads fit together with torsos, or arms, or legs. Odd as they might have seemed they were Karou’s family for as long as she could remember. One day, she is spotted by Akiva, a mysterious being with invisible wings and something about Karou stands out to him. He wonders who she is and how she’s connected to the monsters. When they actually face each other in person, things begin violently, but they are attracted to each other and it makes things complicated (to say the least).

In this book, Taylor created an interesting world composed (like the chimaera) of pieces from various mythologies and stories. Angels come most obviously from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and human-beast combinations are popular in Egyptian, Native American, and Greek myths (to name a few). What makes this world pretty interesting is how all these elements have been combined with the new “mythology” that Taylor gave to this world. As the story started to reveal bits of information about this world (a world where angels are at war with monsters), I was fascinated to learn more about its backstory: What were the chimaera? What were the customs and traditions? What history led to where they are now? How did they develop the skills, the magic, etc. that they have? Why were they at war with the angels? There were so many places for this fantasy story to go to keep me interested and impress me. Unfortunately, too many times we kept coming back to the romance: the love story of Akiva and Karou.

Clearly this novel is not intended for me. It’s obviously meant for teenage girls because I think only they would appreciate so many descriptions of men as “beautiful”, with a beauty that can make a person ache. Whenever we hit one of these scenes or turned back to this side of the story, I found the writing to be syrupy and overwrought. It had a lot of poetry and imagery that seemed to be aimed at people who would dot their letter I’s with hearts, or write their own first names with their boyfriends’ last names. It was just too “girly” and almost too much for me to stomach.

What people saw was a tall young man, beautiful — truly, breath-stealingly beautiful, in a way one rarely beholds in real life — who moved among them with predatory grace, seeming no more mindful of them than if they were statuary in a garden of gods….

His dark hair was cropped close to his skull, with a hairline that dipped into a widow’s peak. His golden skin was bronzed darker across the planes of his face — high ridges of cheekbones, brow, bridge of the nose — as if he lived his life in drenching rich honey light….

But all of this was just fleeting impression. What people fixed on, stopping to watch him pass, were his eyes.

They were amber like a tiger’s, and like a tiger’s they were rimmed in black — the black both of heavy lashes and of kohl, which focused the gold of his irises like beams of light. They were pure and luminous, mesmerizing and achingly beautiful, but something was wrong, was missing. Humanity, perhaps, that quality of benevolence that humans have, without irony, named after themselves. When, coming around a corner, an old woman found herself in his path, the full force of his gaze fell on her and she gasped.

There was live fire in his eyes. She was sure he would set her alight.

To top it off, the concept of love in this book is unrealistic and star-crossed. There is not a single reason why these two characters would fall in love. They don’t know anything about each other, but at-first-sight they are compelled by forces beyond them to be in love. (Well, technically there is a reason, but that reason itself (it would be a huge spoiler for me to reveal) does not justify their love. However, that brings me back to some of the good things in the book. There are a number of pretty good twists revealed as we learn the back-story (in fact, several chapters in the second half are told as flashbacks).) I don’t know if it’s a romance novel thing, but those twists are so oddly drawn-out, that the reader can guess the twists long before the characters learn the truth (thus confirming the reader’s suspicions after-the-fact). As a result, the tension moves from genuine to artificial thanks to this delayed gratification. Bottom line is that there is some creative, imaginative story-telling and world-making in this book, but the writing style is just not very mature.

I know there’s a sequel because this book ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, but maybe I’ll just wait for the movie (I think there’s one in the works for this book anyway), that way I won’t have to read through the prose. I do want to know what happens to these characters and especially what happens to their world, but all the “aching” and “beauty” is just too much for me. 3.5 out of 5, but consider it a 4.5 if you’re a teenage girl (or have the sensibilities of one).

fan art by Child of the Sea

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