I have a soft spot for urban fantasy in which there is “another” world within our own world—Neverwhere comes to mind as a good example. I think it speaks to the reader in me; for someone who inhales escapist fiction, the prospect that any door could potentially be a portal to another place is just … intoxicating. Daughter of Smoke and Bone capitalizes on this idea. Karou is the human adopted daughter of a demonic being called Brimstone. He trades wishes for teeth—human teeth, animal teeth, doesn’t matter. His shop opens onto doors all across the world. But there are so many things Karou doesn’t know about Brimstone or his world.
Laini Taylor says she writes “books for young people”, and Daughter of Smoke and Bone does indeed have a “young adult” feel to it. Voracious readers of YA literature might be excused for not recognizing this feeling, however, because the recent explosion in YA might have deadened their sensitivity to what good young adult fiction is. Compared to a good deal of YA on the market, this is a lot more mature in how it deals with its subject matter. Karou is neither innocent nor helpless nor, indeed, the chosen one. She’s lost her virginity; she draws men naked; she travels across the world, risking further bullet wounds, to collect teeth from Brimstone’s traders. But she isn’t going to be taking down a dystopian society any time soon, thank goodness.
I suppose at this point I should mention that I read this book in a single sitting, something I almost never do. (I don’t mind reading books in a single day, but I prefer to get up, take a break, and distract myself with something else for a while.) I brought it with me to the eye clinic, but because I’m an idiot, I showed up at 1:40 instead of 3:40, when my appointment was actually scheduled. So I had two hours to kill in the waiting room instead of, say, twenty minutes (and then it was another hour after that before I actually saw a doctor, although I was done the book by then). So I buried my nose in Daughter of Smoke and Bone with the kind of intense concentration one can only acquire when one wishes to block out the depressing hush of the hospital waiting room. And I ripped through it, and enjoyed it.
The book engages in some interesting contortions as the story evolves. From a simple tale about Karou’s attempts to balance her human life with her role as an errand-runner for Brimstone, the story expands to encompass an all-out war between angels and demons. As Karou gleans more information about the conflict in Eretz, she also gets closer to the truth of her own origins, which are shrouded in mystery for her. She meets Akiva, an angel on the cusp of turning renegade, and their reunion proves most interesting indeed.
Despite these changes in tone and pace, I found myself enjoying each of these new parts of the book in turn. I loved meeting Brimstone and Issa and the others for the first time. I enjoyed seeing the parallels between Karou’s interaction with her family and her arm’s length interactions with her friends. She is a very careful woman, one who knows from experience as well as story that she should not reveal too much. Beneath this veneer of wisdom, however, lurks the self-centred impatience of a teenager, as demonstrated by her newfound pleasure with wishing itching.
After Karou gets cut off from Brimstone, the focus on the mystery of her origins intensifies. Until then, Karou knew almost nothing about the wider supernatural world of Elsewhere. She had no idea whether Brimstone was unique or part of a supernatural species. He never answered such questions, thrusting her instead into an almost-but-not-quite normal human existence. And while she has the option to embrace that existence totally after her access to Brimstone’s shop is cut off, she chooses instead to pursue a dangerous path towards self-discovery.
Because she’s, you know, a capable protagonist in her own right who doesn’t need to wait around for her boyfriend/love interest/plot-driving male companion. There are no extended training montages to showcase Karou’s natural skills. There are no lengthy conversations about how Karou is “different” or “special” and therefore destined to be the one to change everything. No, she goes off to Marrakesh, makes a deal with a twisted Fallen angel, and then goes on a rampage to collect wishes.
The only squicky part of Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the budding romance between Akiva and Karou. Now, he is a fifty-year-old seraphim, and she is a seventeen-year-old human. So there is an age gap there. But it’s cool because of the truth behind Karou’s existence (without spoiling it, she is special to Akiva and Brimstone and other individuals, but she isn’t special in the sense of being a “chosen one”, which is a relief). Indeed, Karou’s existence is inextricably tied to something that gives Brimstone’s people an edge in the angel/demon war—an edge that just barely keeps them from capitulating. It’s this edge that Akiva was sent to eliminate by cutting off Brimstone’s shop from the human world, and in so doing, he finds Karou and recognizes in her something familiar.
I’m ambivalent about the middle part of the book, in which Taylor flashes back to life before Karou and events leading up to her adoption by Brimstone. In revealing the details of life for the chimerae, she almost makes them seem … pedestrian. Some of that spark of magic that comes from being otherworldly and different fades as one realizes that the chimerae and seraphim are, actually, just as flawed as human beings—just with slightly different technologies for waging war and body plans.
Indeed, it’s not entirely clear what effects, if any, the war in Eretz has on the human world. I don’t know if that’s something explored in later books. Here, though, it seems like the war is nearly entirely self-contained. Aside from Brimstone’s interaction with procurers of teeth and the incursion of Akiva and his two angel brethren to mark and destroy Brimstone’s portals, it sounds like the seraphim and chimerae both give Earth a wide berth. Again, this is a refreshing change from YA fantasy that places the fate of humanity and the Earth in the hands of our protagonist, who is usually squaring off against a sinister and evil antagonist that might or might not have once been a trusted friend.
Rather, the conflict in Daughter of Smoke and Bone is not of Karou’s making, but she must decide whether or not to join up. (Spoiler: guess what she chooses?) And thanks to past events and her own present choices, she is now in a special position … but whether anything will come of that, whether she and Akiva can succeed, is up in the air. (Literally. The story ends with them ascending into a portal in the air.)
Daughter of Smoke and Bone is an entertaining and refreshing voice in young adult fantasy. Karou is a capable protagonist whose choices drive the plot. The world Taylor creates enchants the fantasy fan in me, and I definitely want to learn more about it. While there is a sappy romance subplot, Taylor manages to integrate it into the overall story in such a way that it doesn’t feel bolted-on; it is, in fact, rather necessary. If the other two volumes of this trilogy can deliver the same quality of storytelling, then I’m looking forward to them indeed.