Little, Brown & Company, 2011, 418 pages
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages - not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.
When one of the strangers - beautiful, haunted Akiva - fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?
Warning: This book annoyed me. Hence, much profanity.
Okay, it's my fault. Somehow, from reading summaries elsewhere, I got the idea that this was a book about fallen angels, which is a genre I like when it does not involve Magical Angel Boyfriends, and while I knew it was Young Adult (WARNING WILL ROBINSON! WARNING!) and that there was a romantic storyline involved, the positive reviews I skimmed (boy do I regret that) said it was a really good fantasy novel and totally not a twee Magical Angel Boyfriend book like Fallen or Hush, Hush or other unforgivable crimes against Milton, Dante, and paper.
When Akiva, the angel, is introduced, and even though he's supposedly trying to kill Karou, the protagonist, she's totally getting a case of wet panties at his utter physical perfection and he's all "Who is this fascinating human girl I must kill yet find myself strangely wanting to protect instead?" I whimpered and dented the desk with my forehead. I was suckered! This is a Magical Angel Boyfriend book! I.e., everything that makes the Young Adult genre awful and kill it with fire.
Okay, let me start over: this book is actually not... that bad. I just had to suppress the twitching as I finished it.
Karou rhymes with Sue
I actually spent some time thinking about whether Karou is a Mary Sue. First of all, let's face it, that term is kind of being overused for any slightly more impressive than usual protagonist (I'm guilty myself). (And yes, I've read Comic Book Girl's article. I don't agree with her that the concept of Mary Sue is inherently sexist, but I agree its overuse is.)
On the one hand, Karou:
- Is a very pretty, skinny, oh-so-fashionable artsy arts student in Prague.
- With anime-blue hair.
- And supernatural powers.
- Which grow more potent as the book goes on.
- And she's a mysteriously orphaned foundling.
- Raised by supernatural beings.
- In Prague.
- Although she's not Czech.
- But she speaks Czech, and twenty other languages, like a native.
- Also, she learned martial arts in Hong Kong.
- Well enough to fight off an angelic warrior who's lived his entire life fighting battles against supernatural beings.
- Said angelic warrior turns out to be her soul mate. (Bet you totally didn't see that coming.)
- Her name is Karou.
Incidentally, this is our artsy blue-haired waif's author:
But... while just looking at the above list might seem to make the Sue question a no-brainer, I have to say that I've seen more egregiously improbable protagonists who didn't give off such a Sue vibe, and some of the bullet points above have reasonable explanations that emerge later in the book.
And to her credit, at least Karou knows she's pretty, without being overly vain about it. There's none of this "I just don't understand why all the boys fall in love with me, I'm just so ordinary, tee hee!"
Also, in Karou's favor: she's pretty self-possessed and willful, and while there's a whole lot of melting and pitter-patting around Akiva, she still keeps her presence of mind, never acts particularly deferential towards him, nor does she have any Bella Swan moments.
Why Young Adult novels read like someone dumped a cup of sugar in my coffee
So, at this point it seems to be your typical paranormal romance. Very Special Girl encounters a mysterious Magical Boyfriend and there are mysteries and shit which will be resolved amidst kissing and fade-to-black implied-but-never-actually-spelled-out shmexxing. (In fairness: it's spelled out that Karou Did the Deed with her first boyfriend. Which is what makes him so super-specially evil and douchey, that he took her Precious, Precious Unique One-of-a-Kind Irrecoverable Virginity and then had the nerve to go sleep with other girls instead of being her soul mate. I mean, okay, fine, he's a narcissistic jerk, but could we be less sixteen about this?)
What happens, however, it that it turns out that Akiva, as well as Karou's adoptive family of "monsters," are from another world, one in which the Seraphim have been fighting a war against their former slaves, the beastly chimaera, for a thousand years.
The worldbuilding has been pretty good to this point. I actually rather liked the set up before we got the Elsewhere reveal, in which Karou's chimaera mentor, Brimstone (yeah, he's actually called Brimstone and he's a ram-headed warlock) has her running around the world to fetch teeth, which can be turned into wishes through magic because magic is fueled by pain. And the worldbuilding when we get to Elsewhere is interesting too: the "angelic" Seraphim turn out to be a bunch of imperialistic douchebags, and while the chimaera aren't much better after centuries of genocidal warfare, the two sides are interesting and resonant with human mythology while still being a little bit creative.
But you are wondering what Karou has to do with all this? Well, let's just say most of the second half of the book is flashback which is where what could have been an epic modern retelling of Paradise Lost turns into fucking Romeo and Juliet where a seraph falls in love with a chimaera and guess how well that goes over with their respective peeps?
The "Juliet" in our story, a beautiful gazelle-legged chimaera named Madrigal, is supposedly a seasoned warrior who's been fighting seraphim on the battlefield her entire life. Except when the war-leader of the chimaera decides he's got the hots for her, we spend entire chapters on a freaking ball in which Madrigal goes from hardened supernatural angel-slayer to flushing Disney Princess whose BFF, I shit you not, "sugars" her to make her all sweet for General Toerag. And then there's a long tedious and predictable segue in which her secret angel lover sneaks into the masked ball to see her and they run off together for some fade-to-black implied-but-never-actually-spelled-out shmexxing.
Yes, seriously, tribes of supernatural creatures who come in all shapes and guises and who are incidentally fighting a war for survival against armies of seraphim with flaming swords who want to torture to death every last man, woman, and child of them have formal masked balls so all the girls who are usually out bloodletting with everyone else can giggle and sugar themselves and hope that General Toerag licks them.
See, an adult novel, for grown-ups, would have built on this world the author created and made the story something meaningful, with sacrifice and tragedy and a clash of civilizations in which our star-crossed lovers could play a significant role but only as instruments. Instead, because Laini Taylor is writing for sexually frustrated virgins dreaming of their first kiss, much page space is devoted to Karou and Madrigal running their hands over their angelic lover's perfectly sculpted chest and abs and some of Taylor's best prose is devoted to kissing and angsty woo-woo. The entire plot, and indeed, the war, devolves to its relevance to the star-crossed lovers' HEA.
Also, this timeless love between the protagonists? Once again, we have a YA love story written for an audience that knows approximately fuck-all about long-term relationships and what it really takes to build and maintain a love that endures stress fractures and trauma and just the whittling away of day-to-day coexistence, so you can get away with selling them on "TRUE LOVE! AT FIRST SIGHT! Because! Destiny! Also, abs! Great abs! Their love will live forever!" So while the emotionality of the characters (especially Karou) was believable enough, it was also very adolescent, and at no point do we get any sense that their love was based on more than physical attraction plus the same sort of heart-racing bond forged when two people both dive out of the way of an out-of-control bus, and landing on the ground together, stare into one another's eyes. In the real world, this is good for a one-nighter and maybe a second date, but it's not going to develop into anything further unless there's something more to build on. But teens eat this shit up, so why bother writing anything more realistic and complex?
No, really, it's not that bad
Boy, that sounds like I hated this book, doesn't it? I didn't, really, I just found it enormously frustrating because of the wasted potential.
First of all, Laini Taylor is a good writer, on a prose level. Her descriptive imagery is beautiful. She gives her characters some very nice lines, and those she bothers to flesh out (not many) have lots of personality. She brings an ethereal, fairy tale quality to much of the book. It's light where it should be light, and dark where it should be dark.
If you strip away the kissing and the sugar and the abs (and shoulders, Laini Taylor seems to be really big on shoulders), the plot is, while not particularly original, pretty well thought out and consistent, and I did like the worldbuilding. (Except where it gets bent to allow for fucking masked balls.)
If you actually like this kind of book, by which I mean, YA paranormal romance, then while I haven't read many, I'm still going to say that Daughter of Smoke and Bone is probably one of the best and if you're one of those sexually frustrated virgins, Akiva is hot, I guess. Look, this is about the highest praise I'm going to give a book in this genre, mmkay?
Bottom line is, if Laini Taylor ever writes an adult, non-romantic fantasy novel, I will probably read it. But I'll pass on the rest of this trilogy.
Verdict: THIS IS A MAGICAL ANGEL BOYFRIEND BOOK! Okay, I just had to get that out there to warn anyone else who, like me, stupidly thought it was something else. If you like Magical Angel Boyfriend books, I think that you will love The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, because the writing and the worldbuilding is very good for what it is. If you don't -- well, I really did love Laini Taylor's writing, just not her themes or what the story turned out to be, so I'll wait until she writes something less likely to make me headdesk at misguided expectations.