Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

In a year that brought about a number of stellar books for readers of young adult fantasy fiction, including Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium,” (reviewed here January 30, 2011), Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” (Little, Brown, and Taylor, 2011) is a real standout. The New York Times selected it as one of the five notable young adult books of 2011, and with good reason—it’s a paranormal romantic fantasy with real emotional and mythic depth.
            Karou is a seventeen year –old art student in the Czech Republic city of Prague. Like many arty-types, she’s got her own quirky style—bright ultramarine hair, for starters. In Karou’s case, her hair really is blue, although she’s happy to let her fellow students believe she dyes it. And then there’s the matter of her family—or the closest she has to family. Karou was raised by chimeras: Brimstone, a horned monster with horns and the golden eyes of a crocodile; Issa, a serpent from the waist down, with the hood and fangs of a cobra; giraffe-necked Twiga; and Yasri, a woman with a parrot’s beak.
            When Karou isn’t attending art school, she is running errands for Brimstone, traveling through magic portals to Paris, Marrakesh, and some place in Idaho. She collects teeth for Brimstone—human, crocodile, bear, even elephant tusks—and lots of them. She’s not crazy about the work, but Brimstone pays her in scuppies, which can be used to grant minor wishes, like making her ex-boyfriend itch in unmentionable places, or causing a mean girl to grow a permanent unibrow. Why Brimstone needs them is one the great mysteries of Karou’s life. So are the indigo eyes inked into the palm of her hands, and the feeling that she was meant to be living another life.
            Soon, beautiful winged things begin burning black handprints into the doors of Brimstone’s portals around the world. One of those angelic beings is Akiva, a seraph. Although it is clear that the two are in opposing sides of a war that Karou does not quite understand, they are immediately drawn to each other. And, as with other star-crossed lovers, they soon find that the stakes are high indeed.
            Taylor’s world-building—whether describing the city of Prague, where “Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels,” or Elsewhere, with its two moons—is first rate, as is her character development. Even secondary characters, like Karou’s funny and smart friend Zuzana, are well drawn.
            The book ends on a real cliffhanger—or, more precisely, with Karou in the sky somewhere above the Atlas Mountains—that sets the stage for the second book of the trilogy.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, December 11. 2011 edition of The News-Gazette.