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Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

There has been much love in the book blogosphere for Laini Taylor's Lips Touch,Three Times and I've been chomping at the bit to read her writing. Because of this, I made sure I grabbed a copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bonewhen I saw it at BEA this summer. It was one of my Must Haves based on reputation alone. This is a review of an ARC copy.
 
The Premise: Karou seems like your typical art student. She's a pretty girl with bright blue hair and a vivid imagination. Every day she shows the other students at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia her sketches of extraordinary characters - Brimstone with his ram's horns and strange shop where he sells wishes for teeth, Issa, a snake goddess who mans the door, and others with similar part-human, part-animal shapes. To the other students it looks like Karou has a colorful inner world, full of fantastical stories, but the truth is that Karou draws from real life. She was raised by the creatures in her sketches, and when she's not going to class or working on her art in a small studio apartment in Prague, Karou has a secondary life steeped in magic and a job fetching teeth for Brimstone's shop. Karou doesn't really know who she is and why she was raised by Brimstone, but she is content, if not a little lonely. Then one day, handprints are found, burned onto doors around the world. At the same time, sightings of angels begin. Karou's life is changed forever when she meets one of these winged beings and discovers the truth.
 
Read an excerpt of Daughter of Smoke and Bone here
 
My Thoughts: The first thing to hit me about Daughter of Smoke and Bone was its setting. It is so refreshing to have a story that's NOT set in the usual places, and Prague is described wonderfully. I've never been there, but I want to see its old streets that are "a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century [...] it's medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies". Adding to its character are Karou's beautiful school, housed in a castle with a macabre history, her acquaintances with street performers that dress up as vampires, and her local hang out, a cafe on church grounds known for its goulash and roman statues. I hugely enjoyed reading about Karou's charming day to day life as an art student and Prague local. There's the drama of dealing with her weasel ex-boyfriend, Kaz, the busyness of art classes, and a friendship with the understanding Zuzana, who does not ask questions. Even if Karou wishes she could trust someone with her secrets, her life is pretty full, but her association with a place she calls Elsewhere takes it one step further.
 
One of the first indications that Karou is privy to a magical world beyond our own is her necklace of skuppies - tiny little wishes in physical form; they provide revenge when Karou needs it most. I loved this idea of tokens that may be used once to make a wish come true, and that there are denominations of them, from little scuppies, to shings, to lucknows, gavriels, and bruxes. The enigmatic Brimstone, a chimaera with the head of a ram makes them in his shop, but how he does so or why, or even why he needs teeth of all kinds is a mystery, as are a lot of things about Elsewhere. Karou may have been raised by Brimstone and the other chimaera of his strange shop, but she was kept in the dark about a lot of things. All Karou knows is that she grew up within the shops walls, that she is never allowed in the back room, and that its front door opens to doors all over the world (a possible homage to Howl's Moving Castle).
 
And then the angels show up. I shouldn't have been surprised, (the back blurb of my ARC talks about "winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky"), but I was. The details to go by from the cover and the summary were sparse enough that I didn't really have expectations, so it was a surprise when the seraphim Akiva, a inhumanly gorgeous creature who is tormented by his past, discovers Karou. I'm not usually a fan of angels in fiction, particularly in YA. I don't know why I have this prejudice against them, except maybe I start thinking I'm going to see a romance with the angel falling for a teen, and that is usually hard for me to swallow. I expect angels to have more important things to do. Thankfully, Akiva and the other angels of Daughter of Smoke and Bone are not angels we know. They are something very different, but the story cleverly makes what they are, and the demons that they fight against, just familiar enough to look like they are the genesis for what humans believe. I can't tell you much more, but they are certainly not divine.
 
The strengths of this story are in its worldbuilding and the writing style. The writing is a unique mix of beautiful imagery and youthfulness. Maybe it's the fresh dialogue between Karou and others that makes me think of this sense of the modern and young in the writing. There's also something really romantic about it too. Unfortunately, the high level of romanticism in the story was a stumbling block for me in connecting to the actual romance. Karou's love story felt rushed and melodramatic, and her youth and yearning for love did not help me feel better about it. On the other hand, there is a second romance that isn't as rushed that I was able to connect to a lot better. This restored my faith, but I'm not sure it completely fixed the problems I had with the first romance.
 
Overall: This is a very well written, fantastical story about war and hope, and love and redemption, set in a beautiful European city and in a place that is Elsewhere. It centers around a teenage girl and her unique place in the world, and a seraphim who may or may not be her enemy. It is very romantic, but at times, the sheer romanticism of this story kept me from fully loving it. In the end I liked it, but not being able to initially connect to the romance kept me from really loving this one as much as I wanted to.
 
Daughter of Smoke and Bone comes out September 27th in the U.S.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell's | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Tempting Persephone - positive
Book Harbinger - positive
Fantasy Book Cafe - positive
 
Book trailer (two parter!):


Tags: contemporary fantasy, laini taylor, romance, urban fantasy, young adult
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