I was blown away by Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone. From cover to cover, I delighted in it all. The creative storyline, the fantastic characters, the clever writing. At BEA, I went to a YA panel where this book's editor spoke at (somewhat excessive) length about her adoration for this book, though she gave surprisingly few specific details about its general plot beyond what the tagline and backcover would indicate. I decided to take a chance and just read it -- and when I finished reading, I immediately wanted to start it all over again (and I haven't felt like that about a book since Anna and the French Kiss).
I now understand the editor's difficulty in summarizing, as general statements don't do justice to the fresh voice and wit that infuses what is absolutely one of the best YA reads published in 2011. There are hints of Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker (the Abarat series, not the horror adult stuff) and yet there's still the allure of a mystery novel coupled with romance and a strong heroine with whom one can identify. It all starts with these fantastically tantalizing lines:
"One upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well."
The novel opens with Karou, a blue-haired, teenage art student in Prague whose ex-boyfriend, Kazimir, is a jerk. A creative jerk, no less, and as such, Kazimir can find different self-centered ways of trying to make Karou want him again (read: make her life miserable, as she no longer wants him), like getting a gig as a nude model for her life drawing class to display (among other things) a newly acquired tattooed "K" over his heart. (Karou's friend, Zuzana, responds to this with, "Can you believe him? Does he think if he just dangles his boy bits at you like a cat toy you'll go scampering after him?") While many teenage girls might have insufferable ex-boyfriends in their pasts, Karou can do just a little more than others could about it... like make wishes and know they will come true... "Wishes, for example, for things like itches."
You see, the life she leads in Prague is only a small part of the world that Karou knows. Karou has a notebook filled with drawings of otherworldly things and while her friends wonder where she comes up with such fantastic creatures, Karou merely shrugs, because explaining that these chimaera, these devils, are the only family she's ever known... well, that could get awkward. Karou has been raised by Brimstone, the Wishmonger, and a handful of other chimaera. They might look like monsters, creatures cobbled together from pieces of animals and humans, and other things could never identify, but they are Karou's family and even when they've always been behind the door to the human world, they've raised her and loved her as their own. Following Karou's break-up with Kazimir, she was devastated and while every teenager finds a relationship conversation with an adult to be incredibly awkward, I found myself wishing I had such guidance as Brimstone quite bluntly offers:
"The Wishmonger's voice was so deep it seemed almost the shadow of sound: a dark sonance that lurked in the lowest register of hearing. 'I don't know many rules to live by,' he'd said. 'But here's one. It's simple. Don't put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles--drugs or tattoo--and... no inessential penises, either.'
'Inessential penises?' Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. 'Is there any such thing as an essential one?'
'When an essential one comes along, you'll know,' he replied. 'Stop squandering yourself, child. Wait for love.'
'Love.' Her delight evaporated. She'd thought that was love.
'It will come, and you will know it,' Brimstone had promised, and she so so wanted to believe him."
There are two doors in Brimstone's office and Karou is only allowed to use one of them (she's never seen the other one opened, in fact) which opens to any city one chooses (or at least any city where there's an accompanying magic door linked to it). Karou runs errands for Brimstone, occasionally (and far less than she'd like) earning wishes bigger than the measly old scuppies that created Kazimir's itch. More often than not, these errands involve fetching teeth, which Brimstone keeps in jars and Karou is not allowed to know what purpose they serve. And, as if this wasn't already odd enough, good teeth are getting harder and harder to find. Here's a selection from an errand scene:
"This errand turned out to be a black-market auction in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Karou had attended several such, and they were always the same. Cash only, of course, and attended by sundry underworld types like exiled dictators and crime lords with pretentions to culture. The auction items were a mixed salad of stolen museum pieces--a Chagall drawing, the dried uvula of some beheaded saint, a matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Yes. A matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Karou signed whens he saw them. Brimstone hadn't told her what she was after, only that she would know it when she saw it, and she did. Oh, and wouldn't they be a delight to wrangle on public transportation?
Unlike the other bidders, she didn't have a long black car waiting, or a pair of thug bodyguards to do her heavy lifting. She had only a string of scuppies and her charm, neither of which proved sufficient to persuade a cab driver to hang seven-foot-long elephant tusks out the back of his taxi. So, grumbling, Karou had to drag them six blocks to the nearest Metro station, down the stairs, and through the turnstyle. They were wrapped in canvas and duct-taped, and when a street musician lowered his violin to inquire, 'Hey lovely, what you got there?' she said, 'Musicians who asked questions,' and kept on going."
Karou's life changes, though, the day she sees the angel, Akiva. On an errand for Brimstone, Karou is nearly killed by an angel and is just as strangely spared by him, as he hesitates long enough for Karou to be pulled through a doorway to safety... but safety is relative and it turns out that even while Karou knew more about the chimaera and their world, there is so much she does not know about the centuries-old battle they have fought against the angels... and there's even more she doesn't know about her own past.
The fascinating worlds conjured within these pages are dark and dangerous, but crisp in vivid details. Prague is made particularly magical and otherworldly, despite its existence in our own reality. It provides an excellent gateway to the lands of Taylor's imagination. The reader will have the sense again and again that one door is opened only to discover entirely new realities beyond, multiplied ad infinitum. Karou and her sharp sense of humor are immediate favorites with the reader. She has incredible strength and yet there's a guarded vulnerability to her, so keenly noted in her despair after her ill-fated romance with Kazimir and further illustrated within the drama of the novel. Her uniqueness is brought to light in a hundred ways, causing the reader to actually fall in love with her, rather than simply accept that as the heroine, we're on her side. Her own internal struggles and attempts to understand her place in the worlds feel incredibly real, particularly when her emotions are those which any teen might have. A need to be true to one's friends, an allegiance felt towards those who have sheltered one, and the exasperating desire for connection even while wishing for independence.
"Yearning for love made her feel like a cat that was always twining around ankles, meowing Pet me, pet me, look at me, love me.
Better to be the cat gazing coolly down from a high wall, its expression inscrutable. The cat that shunned petting, that needed no one. Why couldn't she be that cat?
Be that cat!!! she wrote, drawing it into the corner of her page, cool and aloof."
Just as Karou is a brilliant character, so are are Brimstone, Issa, Twiga, and Yasri. Taylor takes her storytelling time, easing us in to her creation, before we start to understand where the story is taking us. There's no need to learn everything at once and the reader will only be pulled deeper in to the story as truths dawn and one races to the finish to confirm if one's guesses are correct. I'll admit that I was a trifle concerned with the appearance of Akiva in his stony perfection at first, but he develops to have a beautiful depth as Karou and the reader learn more about the chimaera, the angels, their war, and that which the chimaera have sought to keep secret for centuries.
I'll stop there. Just go read. Laini Taylor has created something extraordinary here and the best news is... there's more. I honestly don't see how she could possibly top Daughter of Smoke and Bone but I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat to see her try with its sequel. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is full of magic, romance, mystery, and a rare creativity that I only hope is replicated and expounded upon in the next installment in what is sure to be a masterful series.