“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”
The “angels” and “devils” of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone are not quite what those words would lead you to expect, but are given an original twist. The angels are closer to the angels we know — specifically the fearsome, fiery warrior type of angel, not the gauzy kind that helps adorable children cross bridges. They differ from the popular conception of angels in that they’re placed in a religious context of Taylor’s own invention. Their enemies are the chimaera, a race of human/beast hybrids whom the angels revile as demonic. These two races dwell in the realm of Eretz, parallel to our own world, where a war has raged between them since time immemorial.
But Karou knows nothing of this, not yet. Karou is a young girl living in Prague, dividing her time between the bohemian life of an art student and an even stranger secret life. She was raised by chimaera. Her guardian is the enigmatic Brimstone, who often calls upon her to help him collect teeth. Some of the teeth are used to fuel wishes. Others… well, Brimstone keeps his secrets, even from Karou.
I first experienced Taylor’s beautiful writing in 2009’s Lips Touch: Three Times, a collection of three original fairy tales (which you should all go read right now, if you haven’t already). It was such a pleasure getting to sink into her prose again as she unfolded Karou’s world. Prague comes to life in all its quirky beauty, and the scenes in Brimstone’s shop are so visual and so detail-rich and so odd that reading them feels like walking into a Brian Froud painting. Here’s one favorite passage:
The first time she’d come to Prague, she’d gotten so lost exploring these streets. She’d passed an art gallery and a few blocks later doubled back to find it, and… couldn’t. The city had swallowed it. In fact, she had never found it. There was a deceptive tangle of alleys that gave the impression of a map that shifted behind you, gargoyles tiptoeing away, stones like puzzle pieces rearranging themselves into new configurations while you weren’t looking. Prague entranced you, lured you in, like the mythic fey who trick travelers deep into forests until they’re lost beyond hope. But being lost here was a gentle adventure of marionette shops and absinthe, and the only creatures lurking around corners were Kaz and his cohorts in vampire makeup, ready with a silly thrill.
There’s humor too:
“It’s not like there’s a law against flying.”
“Yes there is. The law of gravity.”
At first I worried that Karou would turn out to be a Mary Sue, since Taylor occasionally pans out to an omniscient point of view to tell us that Karou is beautiful, or that Karou is a mystery even to her friends. I needn’t have worried. Though she is beautiful and has blue hair, Karou is a fully rounded character with a balance of virtues and flaws and Taylor allows her to make mistakes. She’s an endearing mix of loyalty and resourcefulness and whimsy — and a touch of pettiness and immaturity. I loved her to bits.
The other aspect of Daughter of Smoke & Bone that had me worried was the romance. One of the trends that annoys me in paranormal YA is insta-love, in which two people become eternal soulmates without really getting to know each other first. A warrior angel, Akiva, comes into Karou’s life, and though they at first see each other as enemies, a connection is forged and they fall in love. In a lesser novel, this would descend into cliché and the relationship would be one of sugarcoated perfection, with no conflict other than maybe a contrived metaphysical rule to keep them apart, or a second love interest tossed in to create drama. But this is not a lesser novel. There is much more going on than you might think. And when conflict does arise between Karou and Akiva, it is not sugarcoated; it is not sanitized. It’s tragic, and it’s real. I think Taylor may even be commenting upon the insta-love trope with this novel. When you fall in insta-love, she seems to say, there are things about that person that you simply don’t know yet.
The full extent of this conflict only reveals itself at the very end, in a twist that will knock the breath out of you and cast all the book’s previous events in a new light. The most crucial event in the story actually occurs pretty early in the page count, but it’s only later that you learn what actually happened and what it means. The map shifts behind you. The puzzle pieces rearrange themselves. Right after finishing, the first thing I did was read that big reveal again, as if it would say something different this time. Then I found myself thumbing back to previous scenes and rereading them, finally understanding their true meaning. I love books that rearrange themselves like this; last month I read a book that was unsatisfying until it was reinterpreted by a twist, and from that point on I enjoyed the book. In the case of Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I’d probably have given it four and a half stars even without the twist, and even with the insta-love, because of the sheer beauty of the prose and the intricate mystery of Karou and her world. With the twist ending, it becomes one of the most memorable fantasy novels I’ve ever read.
Also striking is the theme of prejudice. So much of the plot hinges on the hatred between the angels and the chimaera. This is a story about how two groups can be locked in a war that neither side really wants to fight anymore, but the hate is too entrenched for either side to find peace palatable. It’s a story about how people can dehumanize an Other in order to justify atrocities. It’s a story about how sometimes falling in love with a member of a hated race can make you see all of them in a new light — and sometimes it just makes you see that one person as the exception. It’s a story about how an unexamined privilege — one that seems minor to the one who possesses it — can poison a friendship. But there’s also a hint of hope that a better world might be attainable. I don’t think it’s an accident that Ellai’s garden reads so much like an Eden.
In retrospect, I can see a few seeds of Daughter of Smoke & Bone in Lips Touch: Three Times. I’m reminded of “Goblin Fruit” in that Karou is the kind of woman Kizzy would have loved to be, and in the gutsy, gut-punch ending. I’m reminded of “Hatchling” in that the story begins with eccentric people in a real-world city but quickly becomes much more high-fantasy than one might expect. There’s another similarity to “Hatchling,” too, but it’s a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find that one.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone is what I wish more paranormal YA novels could be. I may sometimes seem to be down on paranormal YA, but I don’t inherently dislike it. In fact, I like it very much, at least in theory, and so I want it to be good. So often, too often, it’s not. Daughter of Smoke & Bone really is that good. Just go read it already. It’s the first in a new trilogy (though it has its own complete story arc) and I’m dying for the next book.