Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Daughter of Smoke & Bone" by Laini Taylor-- Something Special

Fairy-tale city. From the air, red rooftops hug a kink in a dark river, and by night the forested hills appear as spans of black nothing against the dazzle of the lit castle, the spiking Gothic towers, the domes great and small. The river captures all the lights and teases them out, long and wavering, and the side-slashing rain blurs it all to a dream.

This was Akiva's first sight of Prague; he hadn't been the one to mark this portal. That had been Hazael, who had remarked on it after, back in their own world. He'd said that it was beautiful, and it was. Akiva imagined that Astrae might have looked something like this in its golden age, before it was razed by beasts. City of a Hundred spires, the seraph capital had been called-- a tower for each of the godstars-- and the chimaera had torn down every one.

Many a human city had been demolished in war, too, but Prague had been lucky. It stood lovely and ghostly, its chapped stone worn smooth by centuries of storms, millions of rivulets of rain. It was wet and cold, inhospitable, but that didn't bother Akiva. He made his own heat. Moisture hissed on his invisible wings and vaporized, marking out a shape of them against the night in a diffuse halo. Nothing a glamour could do about that, any more than it could hide his wings from his shadow, but there was no one up here to see it.

He was perched on a rooftop in Old Town. The towers of Tyn Church reared up like devil's horns behind a row of buildings across the street, in one of which was Karou's flat. Her window was dark. It had been dark, and her flat empty, for the two days since he found it.

Folded in his pocket, its creases worn smooth from much handling, was a page from a torn sketchbook-- number ninety-two, as was printed on its spine. On the page, which had been the first in a book, a drawing showed Karou with her hands clasped in supplication, accompanied by the words: If found, please return to Kralodvorska 59, no. 12, Prague. You will be rewarded with cosmic goodwill and hard cash. Thank you.

Akiva hadn't brought the whole book with him, just this one page with its ragged edge. He wasn't after cosmic goodwill or hard cash.

Just Karou.

With the infinite patience of one who has learned to live broken, he awaited her return.

~Excerpt from Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Tayor

Some books are so well done, so engrossing, that I find myself wanting to write an exceptionally good review; one that somehow captures the feeling I got from reading the book. "Daughter of Smoke & Bone" is one of those books.

Karou, artistic and beautiful with her ultramarine-blue hair, is a young woman with a lot of unusual secrets. On the surface Karou appears to live the life of a bohemian teenager while going to art school and living in Prague. She's a gifted artist with a score of unusual tattoos, including the hamsas on the palms of her hands. When Karou isn't goofing around with her best friend Zuzana or trying to ditch her annoying ex-boyfriend Kaz, she's running "errands" for Brimstone, the tooth-collecting creature known as a "chimaera" who raised her.

Karou is girl living between two worlds. On one side is her normal life of school, friends and ex-boyfriends; the other side is one populated by semi-human creatures that most people who see Karou's sketchbook assume must be a figment of her imagination with their snake-like aspects, giraffe necks and great ram's horns. But Karou, who is used to bridging her two worlds with her art-- showing each "family" the drawings of the other-- lives a life like no one else. The teeth Karou collects for Brimstone are found in all corners of the globe, from the black-markets of Paris to the wilderness of Idaho, bought from traders who collect their fees in wishes. It's a dangerous life, one that has left Karou scarred, but she is still unprepared when the timeless enemy of the chimaera discover the magic portals that allow Karou to travel the globe-- and one enemy in particular has taken a special interest in Karou.

Most books that try to form a bridge between two distinct worlds have a disjointed feeling. The transitions are often clunky as it's hard to make two wildly disparate worlds fit together with any kind of coherence. Thankfully that is not the case with "Daughter of Smoke & Bone." Taylor is the kind of writer that makes even the most mundane things poetic. The early chapters of the book establish Karou's life in Prague, her special quirkiness and her talent with a facile ease. As the book moves into the mysteries that form the bulk of Karou's existence it never loses its pacing nor does it feel as if anything is forced as the slow reveal begins.

But the real centerpiece of the story has to be the love story. You don't get the sense that "Daughter of Smoke & Bone" is, at heart, a romance by its description; but love and hope are its central themes. Karou spends most of her life in isolation thanks to a background too bizarre to share. And it isn't just that Karou can't speak of her hidden life, there's also the fact that Karou doesn't fully understand her existence herself. She knows Brimstone is known as the Wishmonger and that the teeth he collects are used to fashion the charms he imbues with magical power-- but she doesn't know why. Nor does she know what's behind the door in Brimstone's chambers that she isn't allowed to open. All of the secrets and isolation have led to a lonely life for Karou; one in which relationships don't come easy.

So it's no surprise that when Karou does form attachments, romantic or otherwise, she clings to them fiercely. Unfortunately the secrets of her past prevent her from having any easy resolutions but Taylor does an exceptional job of conveying Karou's journey without inflicting any teenage angst on the reader. In fact "Daughter of Smoke & Bone" isn't a book that one has to be a teenager to enjoy because it isn't a book that features only teenage characters and much of the story deals with very grown-up themes-- though it never veers into anything inappropriate for its target audience.

I tried to find something to dislike about "Daughter of Smoke & Bone"-- I really did-- because I don't want it to seem that I didn't review the book critically; that I was so taken with the story that I overlooked obvious flaws. But I honestly, sincerely couldn't find anything I didn't love about "Daughter of Smoke & Bone." I loved the characters, the story and the setting. The plot is well crafted and beautifully executed with both humor and poignancy. The writing is so lyrical and poetic that it's impossible not to admire the skill of Taylor's storytelling. It's a tale that lives and breaths on the page. It's just a gorgeous book-- my favorite of the year so far.

5 out of 5 stars


Sullivan McPig said...

Lately all YA's seem the same to me with their teen angst and inescapable love triangles, but this sounds like a YA I might give a try some day.

animewookie said...

Wonderful review. This sounds like something I could sink my teeth into ;) And a bit of a mystery too...good stuff indeed :D

Stephanie M. Lorée said...

Added to me TBR list. When you rave about a book, I know it's good.

SQT said...

I really sat and tried to think if there was anything I could fault with this book-- but couldn't think of anything. It really a beautiful story.

Charles Gramlich said...

What a wonderful title!

Linds said...

I find the cover art very striking. It's nice to hear that this story doesn't have the now all too 'normal'teen angst/inexplicable love triangle. I love a good love triangle as much as anyone, but it's so overdone, and rarely done well. Why can't they ever just have a threesome? :P

I'll have to add this to my list.

The Happy Booker said...

What a wonderful review! This is one of those books that I was mildly interested in reading, but your review pretty much tipped the scales. I'm always thrilled when the inside of a book lives up to the beautiful cover image. I can't wait to read this one.

SQT said...

I hope everyone likes this as much as I did. I always get more nervous when I post a glowing review vs. a critical one because I hate to have people rush to get the book only to hate it. I do find it comforting that Patrick Rothfuss was also wowed by this book (as per his brief review on Goodreads). If he likes it, you know it's good-- right?

Simcha said...

I've been hearing great things about this book, and then seeing you state that it's your favorite book of the year has clinched it. I'm off to order it right now.