Soul Meets Soul on Lover’s Lips…
Although it’s been a while since Kelly reviewed Lips Touch: Three Times, (above) her enthusiasm for it obviously made an impact, for whilst I was browsing through the YA section of my local library, I saw a familiar-looking face staring up at me. It was the cover art for Laini Taylor’s book, an image which had clearly been stored away somewhere in the back of my mind, waiting for me to recognize it in the real world. And so, a few years later, I settle down to take Kelly’s recommendation. I’ve ended up with the same bouncy enjoyment, and can’t wait to track down more of Laini Taylor’s work.
Here Taylor has written three gloriously rich and atmospheric fairytales, reasonably short, but beautifully told. If Lips Touch was food, it would be dark chocolate; if it was music, it would be a haunting violin solo; and it’s one of those books that forbid you from rushing through it — you’ll want to savour every word. Taylor uses immensely evocative language in her telling of these stories, and the words glide like syrup over the page. Okay, I’ll quit with the analogies. Suffice to say, Taylor knows how to turn a phrase.
Each of the three tales involves a familiar motif of old folklore: the allure of faerie food, the tithe to hell, and the changeling tale, though Taylor adds unexpected twists to all three of them. As she says at the back of the book: “like a magpie, I am a scavenger of shiny things: fairy tales, dead languages, weird folk beliefs, fascinating religions, and more,” resulting in stories that resonate but still feel fresh and new. The connecting theme in all three stories is (as the title would imply) the significance placed upon a kiss. Though each story is set in a different time, with a different girl in a radically different situation, all are linked by their anticipation for a first kiss and the consequences — for good or for bad — that follow.
The first is “Goblin Fruit,” a modern-day version of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” which introduces us to teenaged Kizzy, a quirky but unpopular girl who (like many teenage girls) hates her life. Coming from a bizarre family that ascribe to an old-fashioned lifestyle, Kizzy’s deep longing for something more — something indefinable — is so pronounced that it leaves a tangible trail of yearning in the air. This attracts the attention of goblins, one of whom approaches her in the guise of a beautiful new boy at school, enticing her to eat of his goblin fruit. The warning signs are all there, but can Kizzy withstand the temptation? Or does her desire for change run too deep?
“Spicy Little Curses Such As These” is set in colonial India, and though it is based on the concept of “tithe,” in which money and souls are freely bartered between mortals and demons, Taylor draws upon the Hindu concept of Heaven and Hell, in which Hell is not a punishment, but a place of purification before reincarnation takes place. With this format in mind, we learn about a battle of wits that takes place between the demon Vasudev and earth’s Ambassador to Hell, a widow called Estelle. She rescues the souls of children in exchange for those of murderers, rapists, slavers, and the like. But Vasudev is a trickster and is constantly trying to best Estelle in their exchanges, in one case offering to save the lives of twenty-two children if Estelle agrees to curse just one. She agrees to this bargain, and (much like the wicked fairy from “Sleeping Beauty”) interrupts the christening of an English baby called Anamique in order to tell the assembly that one word from the newborn child will result in the death of anyone that hears her.
The superstitious Indian servants ensure that Anamique remains silent throughout her childhood, but once she’s a young woman, the temptation to speak grows ever stronger, especially when she meets and falls in love with James Dorsey, and he with her. Resolving that her first word will be “yes” should he ever ask her to marry him, Vasudev and Estella take measures in order to prevent or ensure this happening — though ultimately it is up to Anamique herself to make the choice.
Finally, “Hatchling” is the longest story of the bunch (perhaps twice as long as the preceding stories put together) and follows an array of characters and mysteries. Fourteen year old Esme lives a strange and sheltered life with her mother Mab, never attending school and barely interacting with anyone. On the day that she’s woken by the sound of howling wolves she discovers that one of her brown eyes has turned blue overnight. Inexplicably terrified by this, her mother cuts off her braid and takes her daughter into hiding, convinced that they are being chased.
Chased or not, they are certainly being followed, by a demon-like figure called Mihai, who has a vested interest in Esme. What can it all mean? Esme gradually learns of her mother’s history: that she was born and raised in the court of the Druj Queen, a beautiful but merciless woman whose capricious nature manifests in her treatment of the children in her care. They are cosseted and then neglected, until finally they are “bred” throughout the successive generations in order to provide her with a new “pet.”
It’s creepy and even disturbing stuff, but this world is not ruled entirely by the whims of such soulless creatures. Mihai has a secret, one that he has kept within Esme herself, one that could change the fate of the Druj forever.
Sometimes you come across a book that feels as though it’s been written and designed especially for you. As someone who loves dark fairytales and folklore, “Lips Touch” was one such book. Laini Taylor is in a class alongside Angela Carter, Charles de Lint, Susanna Clarke and Meredith Anne Pierce as a writer who can draw upon the oldest of stories, place them in an original setting, populate them with unique characters, and tell them with beautifully lyrical and descriptive writing.
Supplementing each story are illustrations done by Taylor’s husband, Jim di Bartolo. Reminiscent of Charles Vess, his artwork is evocative and dramatic; more importantly, they help to tell the stories. There is a collection of illustrations before each story, pertaining to the backstory of the characters and obscure in meaning until you read the tale through to its end. Each one finishes on an image that hints as to the future the characters have in store for them, and altogether they make a beautiful visual complement to the text.
Unfortunately, the cover art for the paperback edition is horrendous, forgoing di Bartolo’s captivating image of a striking face (which could belong to any of the three female leads) in favour of pair of red lips in a style that is clearly attempting to mimic the TWILIGHT covers. No. Just no. Treat yourself to a beautiful book, and buy in hardcover.