September 26, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, (Little Brown, 2011).
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
AGE: 15 and up

In a literary landscape glutted with star-crossed romance, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, stands out as something unique, a work so far ahead of its contemporaries that it renders comparisons unfair.

Though the novel opens in contemporary Prague, it spans two worlds - our own and Eretz, a parallel place destroyed by ancient wars, which can only be accessed through magical portals and slits in the sky. With no memory of her parents, Karou, Taylor's beautiful, blue-haired protagonist, is raised in a space between Earth and Eretz by Brimstone, a chimaera (mythical creatures that are half-human and half-animal) and his assistants. She lives two half-lives - one as an art student in Prague, the other as Brimstone's courier, until the portals to his shop are destroyed and Karou is cast out. Bent on returning, Karou confronts Akiva, one of the seraphs responsible for the destruction of the doorways, and unknowingly begins the process of rediscovering who she is.

There is so much more to this novel than summarization can sufficiently communicate. Karou is a highly nuanced heroine, a seventeen year old with piques and pettiness as well as a deep reserve of strength and the feral will to survive. She is the embodiment of agency and the places Taylor takes her are worthy of her complexity. The novel's secondary characters match Karou's full-bloodedness.  Brimstone, Zusana, Karou's tiny, crackling best-friend, Akiva, and even Kaz, her ridiculous ex - all are exceptionally recognizable as people, not constructs, in their way.

Taylor's sense of aesthetics (Zusana's giant marionette, Karou's lapis hair), her facility with imagery, (black handprints on the portal doors, the caged city), and instinct with physical characterization (a baby Karou playing w/ brimstone's tail, the anxious flutter of a chimaera's bat wings) create a landscape so light and lush, so simply gorgeous that it feels like the print equivalent of Karou's sketchbooks, but what makes the book special is the substance beneath the aesthetics. There's a perceptive depth to Karou's isolation that is just not describable. It's what makes Taylor such a writer to envy - the nebulous strength of her work is layered throughout every aspect of the book, impossible to tease out.

This is a challenging, engaging novel and though it is driven by a romance (as are so many YA novels), the romance has unexpected elements and is stricken by very real difficulties. It will no doubt resonate with older teens readers who have, perhaps, already tasted their first heartbreaks. Taylor does not pander to her reader. She writes to the fullness of the concept's potential, which is really quite high. An exquisite, perfectly paced pleasure.

September 5, 2012


FALLEN by Lauren Kate (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009)
GENRE: Paranormal Romance
AGE: 13 and up

Every once and awhile, an extraordinary book comes along, one that breaks new ground, re-envisioning tropes long since tapped dry and changing the landscape of a genre. Fallen is not one of those books. 

Stomping over the ground Stephanie Meyers cleared with Twlight, Fallen is the story of seventeen-year-old Luce, sentenced to reform school after a boy she likes dies in a fire. Less than 24 hours after arriving at Sword & Cross, she is already torn between two preternaturally hot guys - smooth, sweet Cam, and moody, GORGEOUS Daniel (forgive the caps, but it was the only way to communicate the degree to which Luce lingers, in Bella Swan style, on Daniel's rippling perfection). Though Luce herself is anxious, socially weak and easily cowed (not a fantastic role-model), she finds herself in the middle of an enviable love-triangle, but though Cam is tempting, she is overwhelmed by her attraction to Daniel, who is, of course, beyond hostile so that he might protect Luce from their epically shared past.

Hindered dramatically by an enormous amount of interruptive, repetitious description, (most readers don't need multiple reminders that something happened just pages before), Fallen is much longer than the slender narrative requires. Though the concept compelling enough, one gets the sense that Kate didn't make the most of her material - there is very little in Fallen that doesn't directly mirror some aspect of Twilight, from lingering love-sick descriptions to the fact that Daniel, once his love is declared, makes huge sweeping decisions for Luce while she gratefully accepts. Though the climax is action-packed and exciting, the romance between Daniel and Luce never takes off - a frustration given the amount of time Kate spends trying to convince readers of it's gravity. Many loose ends, such as why angels are at a reform school to begin with, are left hanging, presumably to be answered in the sequel.

All of that said, Fallen does move, and though there are a shocking number of eye-rolling moments, the basic elements work well enough to give the story a certain appeal. Bella and Edward... pardon me - Luce and Daniel... might be little more than cardboard on the page, but the pages do turn, thanks mostly to the unanswered questions scattered throughout the book. Fallen, though weak in its own right, may prove to be the start of a strong, compelling series. If nothing else, its popularity is testament to the fact that people are reading and loving it, if only to get a Twlight-esque fix.