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.

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