Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
I’ve said before that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it at least a little by its title, and the title was basically the only reason I read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. It’s quite an intriguing title, and the fact that it was on the shelf next to another interesting titled sequel (Days of Blood & Starlight) probably sealed the deal.
If I’d done any research, I’d probably have pretty quickly found that I’m not the target audience. I’m pretty sure the audience is teenage girls, given that the daughter of smoke and bone in the title is Karou, a 17-year-old girl living in Prague as an art student. Yes, I appear to have read a young adult novel, aimed at girls. This is why reading a random book with no research on Kindle is great: I read a girls’ young adult novel, but no one ever has to know, and my reputation as a manly man* is left intact. Unless I write a review about it.
Anyway, Karou. She’s confidence, independent, popular, intelligent, smart (those are two different things) and so on, but never really to a ridiculous extent. Basically, in most areas of she’s essentially strong enough to be a young heroine while remaining realistically (and sympathetically) flawed.
There are two areas where Karou isn’t realistically flawed – she’s impossibly beautiful, and ridiculously great at drawing. Both of those things are actually fairly intrinsic to the plot, so while they don’t really help in the construction of an interesting character, I can allow it.
Actually, on reflection Karou’s art isn’t exactly required for the plot, but it does make a good entrance point into it: her friends at art school are all vaguely addicted to her continuous story-like drawings of weird fantasy characters. The star being Brimstone: a part-man, part-lion, who buys teeth from people in exchange for wishes. Various other part-human, part-animal characters assist Brimstone in his adventures in Karou’s drawings.
Except, obviously, these characters aren’t just in drawings. These demons, or chimera, are essentially her family. Karou was raised in Brimstone’s wishes-and-teeth emporium from as early as she can remember. Brimstone’s shop exists in another world, which Karou just refers to as Elsewhere, but it has portals from the shop that Karou can use to get all over the world. She may live in Prague, but still regularly runs globe-trotting teeth-collecting errands for Brimstone.
The opening third is mainly about establishing Karou as a character, creating the conflict between her “real” life in Prague and her secret life, and setting up the central mystery of who Karou is, and where she came from. The mystery in itself is quite good. It’s well set up, and there are good clues littered throughout the book so that once it’s revealed you can think back and see where you might have been tipped off. It’s also not quite as straight forward as I initially thought (although it’s still pretty obvious where things are headed from only a few pages in).
I should say here that, at times, it’s fantastically well written, with a lot of humour. Some of the dialogue between Karou and her best friend is actually great. Also, after last year’s HHhH, it was nice to have another novel set (mainly) in Prague, because it just seems like a great city in which to set a book. I think there’s just something about describing Prague that grounds a story in the real world while giving it an air unreality, so it’s just a great setting for fiction. Common real world settings like New York or London just feel a bit dull in comparison to Prague.
I had to say that now, because now I’m going to get all negative, and I didn’t feel right doing that before I mentioned the stuff I enjoyed. It should be clear that I thought the first act was good. The story at that point has some subtlety. It’s obviously setting up that there’s a war between angels (seraphim) and demons (chimera) in Elsewhere, but it never flat out states that. Then Karou meets an angel, Akiva, and it fairly swiftly changes from an interesting mystery in a fantasy war to an attempt at a reluctant Romeo & Juliet. The second act is mainly a fairly dull will-they-won’t-they between Karou and Akiva, while also giving more information about the war between the chimera and seraphim. The quality of writing ebbs away as well.
The final third is basically the reveal of who Karou actually is. Which was pretty terrible. Instead of the reveal giving further complexity to Karou’s character, it basically stripped her of it. In fact, after the first act set Karou up as a strong, independent girl, the final two acts spent all their time changing her to “actually, she’s just a girl who wants a nice man”. That’s not so much a good character arc as it a startlingly bizarre message for a female writer to give to teenage girls. And not a particularly uncommon one.
It’s not just me that thinks it odd that the message in books written by men and women is so different, is it? On reflection, I guess it’s something that’s starker in fantasy than general fiction. But fantasy is just that: fantasy. It’s a genre that doesn’t need to be constrained by the dull realities of life. I just had a quick look through my Kindle, and if I had to derive a moral from the books of my favourite fantasy books by men, it’d be something like “be stronger, smarter, and more violent, and everything will work out well”. I’ve not read a huge amount of fantasy books written by women, but from what I’ve gleaned from the likes of Twilight and whatever else popular culture has somehow forced into my brain, the moral in them seems to be “you don’t need to be interesting if you have a man”. Is that really, unconstrained from reality or consequence, the biggest dream for women? To divest yourself of character or individuality and find a man? Like I said, it just seems a weird message.
Anyway, back to Daughter of Smoke & Bone. There is some complexity there, and as this is the first in a trilogy, it’s not entirely without merit. Karou is a better character in the opening act than later in the book, and maybe that’s part of a deliberate arc. I doubt it, but you never know. There are a couple of good twists and reveals. I particularly liked the realisation of what the smoke and bone in the title referred to. There are also some interesting plot points and characters moving forwards to the rest of the trilogy, and overall quite a lot of potential.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone was a much better book in the first third than the last third. About two thirds of the way through I’d decided I wouldn’t be reading the rest of the trilogy, but I can’t 100% count it out. There are a lot of good books, and a lot I reckon I’d enjoy more, but it is a fairly intriguing set up, so it could happen.
Rating: 5/10, but probably a couple of marks higher if you happen to be a 17-year-old girl.
Read if you like: witty dialogue, a vaguely decent mystery and badly-written romance.
Don’t read if you like: originality. A satisfying ending. Empowering messages for girls.
Next up: The Passage by Justin Cronin.
*I don’t have that reputation.