Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone + Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Goodreads summary of “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”: Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

I’m not going to summarize the plot at all for the second book, “Days of Blood and Starlight,” because that gets into spoiler territory, and this is one of those YA series where if you read the first book and like it, you’re probably going to read the whole series. So up there is the hook for “Smoke and Bone,” and I’ll just more generally opine on concepts and themes across the two for the rest of the review.

One of the first things I found myself quickly enjoying was the female friendship between Karou and Zuzana. There was an authenticity to it that struck me as somewhat unique for the genre. In my experience, a lot of the female protagonists from the ‘high-concept’ YA of late (I’m thinking about the various urban fantasy, dystopian, etc series that are ubiquitous now) are either lone-wolf types or their closest friend is a guy. And that shouldn’t be notable, except that it’s essentially a trope now that the closest-guy-friend is inevitably one of the points in the coming love triangle. Anyway, Karou is a would-be lone wolf: she literally leads a double-life, and since the hidden part of her life revolves around things of a supernatural nature, she isn’t exactly forthcoming to anyone, at first, with personal information. However, her strong-willed best friend Zuzana eventually becomes familiar with Karou’s secret life, and though Zuzana isn’t equipped to be an active participant in that world the way Karou is, she’s a great tether for Karou to the human world. These girls have a friendship based out of genuine mutual respect and fondness for each other, so their dialogue and banter seemed strikingly real and not always forced by a requirement to advance the plot.

As far as Karou herself: I like her, but I wouldn’t say she’s my new best friend. There’s no concrete reason for that, really. She’s got the qualities I like for a female protagonist in this genre: among other things, she’s capable, pragmatic, creative, thoughtful, brave, and a little sassy. It’s possible that how she develops as a character becomes a little too fantastical for me to relate to her, directly, but that’s fine. I don’t need to be drinking buddies with every heroine of every book.

Taylor’s writing is really descriptive and beautiful, so her world-building is pretty top notch. I liked that she used an unusual location like Prague as the backdrop for her story, as opposed to a more commonly selected city like London or New York. I’m definitely interested to check out other books of hers based on what I’ve read here. I think the weakest aspect of the story, for me, was actually the romance. It’s partly my bias as a reader, because I don’t always respond well to the star-crossed lovers narrative, and that’s what is happening here (with characters explicitly referencing “Romeo and Juliet” in case it wasn’t already obvious enough.) I like to read about love being built on something a little more than “He saw her across the square, and she was beautiful, and he was drawn to her in a cosmic way.” (That’s just me, not a quote from the book. Taylor did it better than that, I promise.) Even across two books, not much of a foundation for their One True Love is built, though at least in the second it’s arguable that they both influence the other’s actions for the better, so that’s something.

All together, this is another very fun YA urban fantasy series, and I’m looking forward to the next book/books. I have no idea how many books it’s going to be by the end, but it’s certainly not done at the end of Blood and Starlight. So overall this is recommended, especially if you are a high-concept YA lover like me.

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