I was introduced to Laini Taylor through her three-story anthology Lips Touch: Three Times and was completely entranced by her imagery, ideas and use of language. When I spotted Daughter of Smoke & Bone at the bookshop, I therefore snapped it up without even reading the blurb. Some writers are just that appealing, and my faith was rewarded as I got exactly what I expected: four nights of intoxicating reading.
Seventeen year old Karou is an art-student in Prague who leaves a double-life. On the one hand she attends class, hangs out with her best friend, and tries to avoid the attention of an irritating ex-boyfriend; on the other, she’s an errand girl to a strange creature who collects teeth. Brimstone – who has a ram’s head, man’s torso, reptile’s feet and crocodile eyes – lives in a realm that Karou refers to as “Elsewhere”, a place hidden behind a perfectly innocuous-looking door where Brimstone and other mismatched creatures like him sort through a myriad of teeth. They’re the only family that Karou has ever known, and her task is to fetch shipments of teeth from around the world, travelling to far-flung places through their network of portals.
The catch is that she has no idea where she comes from, who her parents are, or why her unusual family collects teeth. And then one day everything changes. After noticing that black handprints are appearing on the doors to the portals around the world, Karou is attacked by what can only be described as an angel. She manages to escape, and whilst recovering in Elsewhere, she is overcome by temptation and explores their lair further. What she discovers changes everything she’s ever known about herself and her life, and from that point on she’s driven to expose the mystery of her own existence.
It’s hard to say too much more, as the plot of Daughter of Blood & Bone is entirely based upon the enigmas that surround Karou’s life, most of which are gradually unravelled as the story unfolds. The enjoyment is derived from discovering the answers to her strange existence and how they affect the current goings-on across the world.
There may be a few initial eye-rolls from the reader as to Karou’s characterization: let’s see – she has hair that grows naturally blue, tattoos on her palms that never fade, is adept in martial arts, fluent in dozens of languages, and is a source of fascination for several supporting characters. Likewise, the second protagonist (Akiva the seraph) is described as astoundingly beautiful, a noble warrior, and tragically heart-broken. Yup, he’s a Magical Angel Boyfriend (as opposed to the usual Magical Vampire Boyfriend), so to say that there isn’t a fair bit of fantasy-escapism going on would be lying. However, I think criticizing the oh-so-unique and flawless heroes is to miss the point a little. Daughter of Smoke & Bone is framed very much as a fairytale or a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and the characterization reflects that. Karou and Akiva are in no way meant to resemble “real” people – they are larger-than-life archetypes with a few quirks thrown in.
That said, one has to admit that the romance between the two of them is rather thin, and given the emphasis on their beauty and physicality, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that most superficial of all contemporary love stories: Bella and Edward. It’s not a book-breaking flaw, but there’s no real indication as to why they’re so in love, and the portrayal of the “tragic, epic, glorious” bond between two such star-crossed lovers rings a little false. Still, at least Karou is more proactive and self-possessed than Bella ever was and, thankfully, the two of them have goals that go beyond their infatuation with each other. As the back-story gradually reveals, they are on different sides of a war. Unlike Romeo and Juliet however, they actually want to do something to *change* this.
The book’s strengths are in its mysterious premise and its extensive world-building. Taylor presents a realm in which seraphim wage war against chimaera with consequences that spill out into our own world, where a single door can lead to hundreds of different locations, where wishes are corporeal and used as currency, and where souls can be resurrected into new bodies if the right measures are taken. It’s a feast for the imagination, and Taylor’s writing is lyrical and evocative enough to make it an engrossing read, very rarely tipping into purple prose. Her pacing for the first two-thirds of the book is excellent, though it slows a little in the final third, which is essentially an extended flashback sequence designed to explain the immediate attraction between Karou and Akiva, one which really isn’t enough to justify their relationship.
But not every story has to excel on every level. Daughter of Smoke & Bone is an entertaining piece of fiction that seems to deliberately strive for stock characters and circumstances, but is carried by its delicate poetic-prose and complex world-building. Depending on your preferences, you’ll find this tolerable or frustrating, so keep in mind the book’s purpose: it’s readable and escapist romance/fantasy, with a cliff-hanger ending that’ll probably do its job in making you mark down the release date of the second book. I know I’ll be reading it – not for the resolution of the romance, but for what follows in the war between seraphim and chimaera.