Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Author: Laini Taylor
Published: September, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown (Hachette)
I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone a number of years ago, and at the time rated it at two stars. Two stars! For comparison, on Goodreads, the book's average rating is a four point six. Well, I've read the book over again, and (hold onto your seats!) I'm bumping my rating up to three stars!

My second read-through of the book came about in a strange way.  I was well aware that in disliking the book, I was in a pretty small minority.  Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy has been very commercially successful and critically well-received.  Many of my favorite book bloggers rave over the series.  Taylor's books are continuously checked-out of my library — even her book of short stories (Lips Touch: Three Times).  I started to second-guess myself. I figured I had to be missing something.

As it turns out, what I was missing was the second book in the series.  I do quite a bit of driving these days and so procured the audiobook for Days of Blood and Starlight (book two) from my library.  After two discs, I was hooked.  I immediately got my hands on Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and started to re-read it, at the same time continuing to listen to Days of Blood and Starlight.

What I discovered was that Daughter of Smoke and Bone begins the series by only revealing a small, small portion of the scope of the trilogy.  Our main character is dealing with some memory loss, and so a complicated plot and fantasy world is introduced to the reader through the words of a clueless narrator. After starting book two, with all of its elucidation, I realized that my initial dislike of Daughter of Smoke and Bone came from confusion.

Here's how the story begins. We're introduced to Karou, a multilingual teenager who is an art student in Prague. She's a strange character. She has no nationality and no parents.  She also has a big secret.  She was raised in a small series of rooms by four chimera...

Now, as a Greek mythology purist, this usage of the word "chimera" chafes a little.  The Chimera is, after all, a single beast — a hybrid creature made of lion, goat, and snake. Laini Taylor's "chimera" are a fantastical race of hybrid beings.  I will have more to say regarding Taylor's tendency towards appropriation later...

Karou's father figure is Brimstone, a chimera made of human, lion, ram, and reptile parts.  In his series of little rooms and portals, Brimstone whittles away his hours with a mysterious chore.  He makes necklaces out of teeth.

Is your brain hurting yet?

Karou, a human who was raised by these secretive beasts, lives a double life.  In one, she goes to her art classes, patronizes cafes with friends, and dodges her ex-boyfriend.  In the other, she drops everything to answer Brimstone's summons, running his errands, bringing him back teeth from around the world (accessed through Brimstone's portals) to replenish his supply.

Is your disbelief suspended yet?

The plot kicks into gear when Brimstone's portals to the human world start to be systematically vandalized with black handprints and Karou has a violent run-in with an angel, named Akiva.

This is where the plot run-through ends!

This premise is... a lot to take in, to say the least.  What completely dumbfounded me, however, was Taylor's appropriation of the words "angel" and "demon," along with "chimera."  On my first read-through, I assumed that the book's "angels" were somehow connected to the religious understanding of the word.  God's first children, what have you.  The chimera, also referred to as "demons," I assumed were the fallen children of God. As it turns out, Taylor just borrowed these terms to name fantastical races of her own creation, races who bear some resemblance to beings popularly understood as angels and demons.  The books actually have nothing to do with God.


Well, why didn't you say so, Laini Taylor?!

The frustrating thing is, after the confusion of the appropriation is cleared up, this series is hugely enjoyable.  The prose is utterly gorgeous, Taylor is outrageously creative, and the series has an epic scope, and is a well-rounded amalgam of genres.  Books two and three, especially, have cross-gender appeal, which is something that I find important.  And, I missed out on all of this goodness, because the first book confounded my classically-educated brain.

So, in case it hasn't been apparent so far, I am recommending Daughter of Smoke and Bone, if only for the reason that afterwards, you can read Days of Blood and Starlight. Despite its stumbles, the first book in Laini Taylor's strange, undefinable series paves the way for an amazing story that lovers of fantasy, action, and romance won't want to miss.

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