Wrote this one out in advance—snagged a few minutes of internet time to post it online. Expect lots more book reviews in coming weeks – with internet access once every few days, I have plenty of time to read.
Because I am in the process of working on a young adult fiction novel myself, I’ve decided to make an effort to read more young adult fiction, which something I haven’t really done since I finished Harry Potter way back in high school. In college, reading for schoolwork completely consumed my mind, and I barely read anything for pleasure, even during the summer. During those three years, reading books always seemed like far more work than play. But since then, I’ve slowly conquered the ingrained habit of underlining, annotating, and taking notes for essay quotes, and I’ve relearned how to read for reading’s sake. Which means I get to go back to reading books that are, dare I say it, fun—books that might not add anything to my intellectual life or to my philosophical understanding of the world, but rather are vividly imagined, carried by a swiftly-moving plot and with the threat of danger lurking around every dark corner, and with characters we cannot help but care about and in whose passions and motivations we believe very passionately.
So, in that spirit, my mom—who I doubt very much has EVER lost the ability to read for pleasure—recommended the book “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” by Laini Taylor. It’s the story of Karou, a girl raised by four creatures in a little shop, all starkly different in appearance, that she knows as “chimaera”. Karou, attends her school in Prague as casually as she can while trying not to reveal to her friends that at nights and on weekends she runs errands for a demon—appropriately named Brimstone, her surrogate father—with the eyes of a crocodile, the head of something resembling a ram, lion haunches, and feet that Karou imagines as dragon. Her sketchbooks tell the stories of her weekend errands for Brimstone, where she is taken to various cities across the world to trade wish-coins of various denominations for teeth of all shapes and sizes. Of course, none of her friends believe the sketchbooks tell real stories. But they do. They are very real, and sometimes, very dangerous.
Of course, there are a lot of mysteries, even for Karou, who was raised in this dark and swirling world of teeth traders, wishmongers, and chimaera. and Karou wants answers. Why does Brimstone trade for teeth, of all things? How on earth did a human girl come to be in the care of four chimaera, and why has Brimstone never told her anything of her parentage? And what—what—on earth is behind the second door to Brimstone’s shop?
The answers to these questions and more, slowly revealed over the course of the book, spill out like so much magical thread to weave a tapestry of a religious mythology re-imagined. The ancient war between angels and demons is masterfully retold in Taylor’s vivid imagination, with seraphs and chimaera battling for control of Eretz, a world that touches and intersects with the human world but is rarely revealed except to those in the know.
For me, however, the strength of the book lay not in the invented world of angels, demons, and mysterious witchlike magic. I have begun to find, in fact, that I rather dislike “borrowed” mythologies, semi-creative retellings of worlds that have been rediscovered and reinvented by storytellers and authors over the millennia. Frankly, I’m rather bored with words like “seraph” and “chimaera”. They are magical in their mysteriousness the first time children discover them, through authors like Madeleine l’Engle and Ursula le Guin, but they grow old and abused through repetition in storybooks and video games, and after a while I tire of hearing the same words used to mean very slightly different things with each new retelling. Though Taylor’s world was fascinating in its differences from every other story of angels and demons, and the minutiae and particularities of the world give it strength and definition, I still find myself wishing that she had chosen to create new names for these things, or even to create entirely new species, without relying on the consistently overused “angels and demons”.
That being said, however, Taylor does a masterful job weaving every detail of the world that Karou slowly discovers into a coherent, and important, mythology. She is creative, but her creativity lies in her ability to put the machinery together, to make it run like clockwork. There is nothing lacking, and nothing unnecessary; there is nothing arbitrary or invented for the sake of invention. Each piece of the puzzle fits together so snugly that, at the end of the book, when the final secret is revealed, you wonder how on earth it took you so long to figure it out.
But even this made less of an impression on me than the moments of shining beauty in her words. At times more poetry than prose, Taylor’s strength lies in moments of descriptiveness, where her words are far more creative than her world. They can be little things: “She blinked, and words spilled across her thoughts,” or grander, more powerful:
And yet, something tied them together, stronger than any of that, something with the power to conduct her blood and breath like a symphony, so that anything she did to fight against it felt like discord, like disharmony with her self.
Her words can be mystic, at times:
Rushing, like wind through a door, and Karou was the door, and the wind was coming home, and she as also the wind. She was all: wind and home and door. She rushed into herself and was filled. She let herself in and was full.
And sometimes, they are simple but delicious because you know you never could have come up with that phrase yourself:
For a month of stolen nights and the occasional sun-drenched afternoon, […] they cupped their wings around their happiness and called it a world […]
There were definitely moments of annoyance for me with this book. Characters sort of dropped in and dropped out, without too much regard for whether or not I cared about them, wanted to know more, or felt like they were relevant to the story. And then, sometimes I felt like the secrets were too tantalizing, like too much time was spent drawing them out and I felt, not excitement for the big reveal, but impatience and annoyance that we were still dealing with other minute things and not finding our answers. Sometimes, being hungry is pleasant, because you know you’ll savor all the delicious meal waiting for you at home, but sometimes it’s painful, and you can’t focus or think until you’ve eaten at least something. At times, I felt like Taylor deprived me for too long, and I was all too ready to jump ahead and find my answers without waiting for her to catch me up.
In the end, of course, all of those annoyances were worth it. From top to bottom, nearly every aspect of the book was interesting, creative, and worth reading, and I will eagerly await the next installment.
Read if you are a fan of: Young adult fiction, angels and demons, magic and witchcraft, exotic worlds and cities, real and imagined. Link to the amazon page is here.