In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor introduced us to Karou, a blue-haired seventeen-year-old girl whose origins are far more fantastic than you could believe at first glance. She is a linchpin in a war between the angelic seraphim and the demonic chimarae of Eretz, a world parallel to Earth. At the end of the first book, Karou learns the secret behind her origins and abandons her on-again/off-again angelic lover Akiva to go to Eretz and try to find Brimstone. Instead she finds devastation and becomes drawn into a conflict in which both sides are more desperate than ever before.
My landlady makes a very apt comparison when she likens Days of Blood of Starlight to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This middle book of the trilogy is the dark before the dawn. Taylor seems to delight in dealing reversal after reversal to the protagonists, building them up and tearing them down. Thanks to the feat of resurrection, there are even cases analogous to Han getting frozen in carbonite. If the first book was Karou Skywalker learning that there is a war going on and she is its only hope (her name), then this book is Karou and her allies struggling against a far more powerful enemy. The odds are harsh, the stakes are high, and it’s hard to see any kind of endgame in sight. This is particularly true for Karou, because she isn’t a very good strategist. It’s as if a seventeen-year-old who has just learned of Eretz, the war, and her own chimeric origins is having trouble determining the best course of action.
Karou ends up working for the manipulative and self-absorbed Thiago, the White Wolf, creating new, winged bodies for the few chimerae soldiers who escaped the massacre in Eretz. She regrets how this turn of events places her in Thiago’s power, how she is viewed as a traitor to her people by the same soldiers she restores to newer, better, more monstrous bodies. Yet she feels loyal to these people, powerless to do anything except continue to prosecute a hopeless war. Taylor establishes from the outset that this a story with many shades of grey. It’s easy for the observer to sit back and pass judgement on characters like Thiago, who is truly reprehensible—but in Karou’s place, I’m not sure I’d do anything differently. Although she has begun to regain her memories of life as Madrigal, she is still also seventeen years old. As with the first book, Taylor avoids turning Karou into a prophesied chosen one or Mary Sue. She is fallible and vulnerable, and it isn’t fate that tempers her but the hope that so many others have placed in her. Days of Blood and Starlight is the story of Karou moving past her split identity to realize that, if she truly wants to succeed and to change Eretz for the better, she needs to stop reacting to what others do and start acting to reframe things in a different light. Eretz has known war for too long.
We become much better acquainted with the cultures of the chimerae and the seraphim in this book. The former are battered and nearly beaten: with the army almost exterminated, “free chimerae” is becoming an obsolete term in Eretz. Taylor symbolizes the desperation of the few remaining soldiers in the fierce new bodies that Karou forges for them: with each iteration, they seem to lose further human characteristics in favour of the destructive capabilities of animal features. As Karou herself reflects, she is complicit in transforming her people into the very monsters and beasts the seraphim view them as. The irony is not lost on her, but that doesn’t make it any less devastating.
The seraphim are not much better off. Soldiers like Akiva, so used to following orders without question, are beginning to have second thoughts. I remember back when reading the first book that I was so intrigued when the angels started showing up. Until Taylor dispelled the connection between the seraphim and Christian mythology, I was really looking forward to discovering why God was sending angels around to close up portals. But God had nothing to do with it. All the seraphim have is a cruel, tyrannical emperor. For all their angelic appearance, they are nowhere near enlightenment. They are just as divisive, violent, and brutal as any human culture.
In fact, the seraphim—and my evolving perspective on them—remind me a lot of the angels on Supernatural. When the angels first entered the picture in season 4, they were awesome. Demons didn’t stand a chance against them. They seemed to have nearly limitless power. And, of course, they were representatives of God. As that season, and then the show, progressed, it became clear that the angels were not unified and did not have the best interests of humanity in mind. God had abandoned them—along with the whole of Creation, it seemed—and they were disillusioned enough that they welcomed an apocalypse. Since then, the angels have lurched from one bloody conflict to another, revealing themselves to be as flawed and imperfect as the humans they sneered at for so long.
Akiva’s arc mirrors Karou’s: he too is torn between loyalty to his people and his desire for a future of all Eretz. So he begins recruiting allies and trading in truly seditious thoughts, like killing daddy emperor. And, like Karou, his inexperience in these matters leads him to be manipulated and out-maneouvred. It’s arguable that he has actually made matters much worse by the end of Days of Blood and Starlight.
The ending is definitely the best part of the book. As Karou and Akiva come together again, both worlds hang in the balance. Karou has undertaken a risky deception. Akiva has slain an emperor only to find himself a pawn in the scheme of his uncle, Jael, who now seeks to reveal the seraphim to humanity and obtain human weapons of mass destruction. Together, these two would-be peacemakers have united a slim faction of chimerae and seraphim. It is a tenuous alliance fraught with tension and bad blood; a single spark and it could go up in flames. Somehow, they need to convince an entire world of warring demons and angels to make peace. Good luck with that.
I’m very intrigued to see what happens now that the seraphim are treating with humanity. I feel sorry for the inhabitants of Eretz if they manage to frighten human authorities enough to nuke Eretz through the portals. That wouldn’t be pretty. When it comes to violence and persecution, the seraphim and chimerae create some tough competition, but humans still manage to outstrip them. Although Jael believes that humans will welcome the seraphim with open arms, I’m willing to bet that their reception will be more complicated than that. So far, Taylor hasn’t failed to deliver on complex, multi-layered plot developments, so I’m anticipating a great deal from the third book.
Days of Blood and Starlight provides confirmation that Taylor is a strong voice in young adult fiction (though I’d argue that, in this book, the story definitely transcends any such age label and is, simply, good fantasy fiction). Daughter of Smoke and Bone was not a fluke. If fantasy is your thing, don’t miss out on this series.