Monday, 31 October 2011

Review: 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor

This is an amazing book, in lots of ways. It's way outside my comfort zone - I just don't do urban fantasy, angels and demons, seventeen year old female protagonists, or paranormal romance. And it was expensive, to boot. But the reviews were extraordinary, so I checked the free Kindle sample and yes, she can write, I get it.

The opening drew me in straight away, always a good sign. Karou is immediately interesting, with enough personality and mysterious history to be intriguing. And by the time the bizarre creatures who constitute the nearest she has to family are introduced, I was definitely hooked. What's not to like about a protagonist who has unlimited 'wishes' and uses them to turn her hair blue and give people she dislikes unbearable itches? And I just love the idea of being gifted fluency in a new language every birthday. I'm adding that to my Amazon wishlist immediately. Akiva, the abnormally beautiful angel, is well drawn, and people respond to him in perfectly believable ways: did you see that? is it...? it can't be, can it...? with no sleight of hand on the author's part. An angel walking around in Prague is a showstopper, exactly as you would expect.

The story builds incredibly well. There are a few passages of exposition towards the end which feel a little heavy, it depends too much on Karou's ignorance of her past (why? what's wrong with telling people the truth?) and some of the writing is perilously close to over the top, but somehow it works. Occasionally, after a particularly emotional part, I would think: the guy's an angel, for goodness sake, with fiery wings and smouldering eyes, it's completely ridiculous and I'm not even tempted to laugh. And it ought to feel cliche-ridden - the orphan brought up not knowing about her heritage, the forbidden love, the portals to another world, the impossibly beautiful people, the kickass heroine - yet somehow it all works. The writing is that good. I was swept up in the story from start to finish.

Some minor criticisms: the world building is not great. The earthly cities are fine - Prague, Marrakesh and the rest feel like places the author has been to, and she evokes them well, but the 'other' world doesn't quite come to life in the same way. It felt rather perfunctorily sketched, an outline drawing rather than a fully nuanced painting. And really, did it have to be so patriarchal? That was disappointing. I can't quite believe in the chimaera, either, or a thousand year war. But I can let that pass.

The climax was brilliantly done, even if not totally unexpected. But after I stopped reading, I felt curiously flat. It was a very emotional book, yet I didn't feel emotionally drained or desperate for the next volume. It's a terrific story, beautifully done at every level, and yet it lacked - well, something. There was no profundity to it, no meaningful themes (beyond the trite: war is bad, angels/chimaera are people too, if you treat people badly, sooner or later they bite back) and too few moments of depth beyond the emotional storms. It's like a well-made souffle - exquisitely light, a delicate work of art, but still mostly air. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I prefer a book with a bit more to it (more spicy or chewy or tart or meaty, say, to continue the food analogy).  At bottom, it's just a love story: a beautiful, forbidden, death-defying one, an extraordinarily well-written one, but still just a story of two people on opposing sides who fell implausibly in love at first sight. I would love to give this five stars on writing quality alone, and when I've read the rest of the story I may do just that, but for now this is a very good four stars.

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