Thursday, 29 September 2011

Book Review | Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

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"Errand requiring immediate attention. Come."

The note was on vellum, pierced by the talons of the almost-crow that delivered it. Karou read the message. 'He never says please', she sighed, but she gathered up her things.

When Brimstone called, she always came.

In general, Karou has managed to keep her two lives in balance. On the one hand, she's a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague; on the other, errand-girl to a monstrous creature who is the closest thing she has to family. Raised half in our world, half in 'Elsewhere', she has never understood Brimstone's dark work - buying teeth from hunters and murderers - nor how she came into his keeping. She is a secret even to herself, plagued by the sensation that she isn't whole.

Now the doors to Elsewhere are closing, and Karou must choose between the safety of her human life and the dangers of a war-ravaged world that may hold the answers she has always sought.


Those of you who know me will know, no doubt, that I am not what you might call a fan of paranormal romance.

In fact in many ways, I think the genre has been a plague on all our houses. I mean, sure... a few more folks are card-carrying readers now than there would otherwise be, thanks to Twilight, and the continuing affairs of Sookie bloody Stackhouse, and so on and so forth. That alone would be cause for celebration, had not the success of these series been such that countless thousands of me-too texts arose overnight, as if from the grave. But the sad truth is there's only room on bookstore shelves for so many spines, and money in our wallets - not to mention the bank vaults of publishers - for so many new releases, practically every one of which is touted as the Next Big Thing, until it isn't.

Even then, if paranormal romance was a genre of literature in which quality seemed to me in the least meaningful, I wouldn't mind. But let's face it: Stephanie Meyer is terrible writer - even Stephen King thinks she's a waste of space - and she's sold a metric googolplex of books. If hers is the bar other paranormal romance writers must aspire to, then it is little wonder that the genre is so rife with rubbish.

Rife... but not entirely overrun.

Though it is the first of her works to be published here in the UK, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is actually Laini Taylor's fourth novel, and her mastery of the craft is on show from word one:

Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark - in the dead of winter the sun didn't rise until eight - but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze. (p.1)

Insofar as it demonstrates the ineffable prettiness of Taylor's prose, her wry, knowing sense of humour and the uniqueness of this series' setting, this single paragraph serves to set Daughter of Smoke and Bone apart from the masses. And it only gets better.

Karou is a fantastic protagonist. It's par for the course, of course, that she's smart and funny and talented, not to mention stubborn, beautiful and brave, but Karou is far from picture perfect; she can be cruel, and she is often frivolous. She makes the same mistakes we all would - for love, for friends, for family - and pays for them in kind. Above all else, however, what appealed to me about her character is that she is resolutely not some innocent specimen to be despoiled, or won by some handsome man/monster as if she were a prize.

She had been innocent once, a little girl playing with feathers on the floor of a devil's lair. She wasn't innocent now, but she didn't know what to do about it. This was her life: magic and shame and secrets and teeth and a deep, nagging hollow at the center of herself where something was most certainly missing. (p.45)

Indeed, something most certainly is. There's something off about Karou, you see. Everyone who knows her knows it - and it goes beyond the secrets she must keep... the double life she must live. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is about Karou's discovery of that absent aspect of her character: the secret piece that will explain the puzzle that is her existence, betwixt here - in our world - and Elsewhere, where dwells the demon that is her adopted daddy.

Brimstone is not your usual father figure. More beast than man - yet more a man than most - while he can be found behind any number of doors in our world, Brimstone is not of our world, but another:

It wasn't like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread. Genies didn't burst from lamps, and talking fish didn't bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone's shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn't gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn't souls either. It was weirder than any of that.

It was teeth. (p.33)

And what of Karou? If she too is from Elsewhere, then why does she not have the aspect of an eagle, or a fox, or a crocodile, like her father? If she is from here and not there, though, why did Brimstone take her in, seventeen years ago? For what purpose does she travel each week to the darkest corners of the world, to collect the teeth of dead things from merchants who want Brimstone's wishes for their troubles? Is she a creature of light, or dark? An angel, or a demon? An omen of war, or the promise - the hope - of peace?

If you're at all familiar with the genre of this novel, I'm sure you'll have a good guess at the ready... and you wouldn't be entirely amiss in your imaginings. In short: if you don't do patience, then don't do Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I'd say the same if you aren't prepared to give paranormal romance a chance, because this is absolutely that. Rest assured, however, that
though there are moments when one wishes Taylor would just get on with what seems inevitable, given the genre's tendencies, she is, as it transpires, ever a step or ten ahead, and in the interim her prose is such a wonder that the getting there is no chore.

Would that I could talk to you about where Daughter of Smoke and Bone goes, for that is where it truly comes into its own. Sadly, much of what is remarkable about this justifiably lauded novel is discovered only in its magnificent last act, and these are revelations I wouldn't dream of ruining for those among you who are yet to have the pleasure. Suffice it to say that appealing eau de la urban fantasy of the sections of Daughter of Smoke and Bone set in entrancing Prague - which will lure you in "like the mythic fey who trick travelers deep into forests until they're lost beyond hope" (p.183) - are brilliantly substituted for high fantasy of the highest variety.

In style and in substance, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a breathtaking creation. Nominal in its premise, perhaps, but truly beautifully wrought; Laini Taylor's latest is easily ten times the book Twilight is, was, or ever will be.

Alas, I doubt that it will sell a tenth as many copies.

(It should.)


Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor

UK Publication: September 2011, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: September 2011, Little, Brown

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  1. I've been seeing this book as it makes its rounds on the blogosphere, and while I didn't get a copy for myself, I did at least get that partial preview that it seems most people have access to. And I've got to say, honestly, that if I enjoy the preview half as much as people are implying I will, that'll be another sale for this book, because I won't be able to resist buying a copy. It's heartening to see so many glowing reviews for it. Makes me want to read it all the more!

  2. When I read the beginning i was very confused, the names, the settings, all are foreign to me. I usually read books set in atleast an english speaking country but i got used to it, and to the weird names. I'm going to be totally honest here and say that i did not appreciate all the details written for everything in the book.

  3. Wow, what a fantastic review. I wrote one of my own but it hardly stands up to yours. I look forward to perusing the rest of your reviews on this blog.


    1. Very kind of you to say so, Amira. I've been meaning to read the sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bones for some months now; maybe a read through your review of the first book would be the kick in the rear I need. Where can I find it?