Can love and loyalty transcend an ancient animosity and the differences in our bodies? In “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” Laini Taylor asks questions about the intersection between family and monstrosity, wholeness and disunity. She paints a sweeping and sensuous fantasy romance with as much care as her protagonist renders portraits in her sketchbook.
Seventeen-year-old Karou is an art student in modern-day Prague whose questions about her own mysterious past continue to defy explanation. All she knows is that, contrary to what her classmates believe, the fantastical hybrid creatures (“chimaera”) she draws are not figments of her imagination but real. In fact they are the only family she has ever had, headed by the gruff, ram-like Brimstone. Having raised Karou in the cramped, dusty workshop he describes simply as “Elsewhere,” Brimstone sends his human foster daughter on missions around the world to obtain teeth, animal and human, for his magical crafts. Though Karou has no idea what power these teeth contain, Brimstone pays for her errands in small wishes – like the one she uses to turn her hair a natural ultramarine, and the one by which she erases a tattoo with her ex-boyfriend’s name. Karou’s exotic, if functional, domestic life is torn away, however, when a mercilessly beautiful angel flies in from a different world, bringing with him whispers of memory she didn’t know she had. Perhaps the ancient war his seraphim clan is waging against the chimaeras is a key to her unsolved identity; perhaps the unexpected sense of rightness – of “placeness” – he evokes in her is the answer to the lack she has always felt inside. Yet Karou is sure that her true allegiance lies with her chimaera family – even though the seraphim call them monsters, even though traces of devilish sorcery hang over them like smoke.
The love story emerges and absorbs the narrative, and its heady quality is unabated by its backdrop of celestial war. Taylor lavishes jeweled, lingering descriptions on both Karou and the seraph Akiva’s exquisite beauty, filling the space between them with the pulsing rush of teenage romance in the way one imagines it should feel for Edward and Bella. These passages range from the passionately extravagant (“They breathed each other’s breath as the pull gathered between and around and in them, astral”) to the morbidly original (Akiva finds love “as new and strange as if an eye had suddenly peeled itself open in the back of his head, seeing in a new dimension”). The bombast in the lines feels about right because of the sheer elegance of Taylor’s prose; if only her characters were a little rounder, a little less nobly perfect (as is usually the case with angels, Akiva’s tortured flawlessness makes him less compelling than I would have wished). Still they make for good star-crossed lovers, and the tragic drama of their circumstance supplies conflict enough for readers in search of some old-fashioned gut-wrenching. Karou and Akiva find their attraction both wonderful and dangerous – when she discovers that the hamsa tattoos on her palms inflict terrible pain on seraphim, her inability to even touch Akiva recalls the bodily rebellion, the joyful burn of young love.
The earthly cities we visit, while contemporary, are full of dark delights, stained with magic and unreality and words like “ghostlight.” Karou’s demon-haunted Prague is sinisterly romantic with its coffin-filled cafes, “a theater with unseen puppeteers crouched behind velvet;” a market in Marrakesh where Karou trades with a graverobber is colorful and grimy. One of the novel’s biggest strengths, too, is the humor and vitality of its human population, led by Karou’s best friend Zuzana. The girls’ prickly, affectionate banter is natural and continually amusing – their friendship makes sense, in a way that many fictional ones don’t. In fact I almost mourned the lushness and vibrancy of the human world when the narrative plunged into the cold bleakness of war-torn Eretz, home of seraphim and chimaera, and the setting of the latter third of the novel. Taylor gives us lovingly crafted details – a spooky underground cathedral, a taste of magical astrology – but I couldn’t help wanting a more coherent overview of the secondary world’s rules, a better picture of how it functioned differently from Earth. This sense of unfilled gaps carried to the end of the novel. The composite nature of the chimaera, for example – each one a mixture of various animal species, including human – would seem to require a more complicated lifestyle than the incongruously anthropomorphic one we glimpse.
This vagueness seems an oversight for a story so obsessed with the diversity of bodies and the limitations of the human frame of view. “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” delves into large ideas with aplomb, waking up the sleepy cliché of angels fighting devils by siding its protagonist with the ugly and the monstrous. Hybridity is one of its major tenets: birth and blood, Karou comes to realize, are meaningless in the face of deeper connections between disparate parts. In many ways the story is an imperialist allegory, with the clipped, Aryan militancy of the seraphim empire pitted against the rebelling former-slave chimaera tribes. And later moments involve an intriguing venture into distinctly racial issues of purity and prejudice, made all the more disquieting by their unfamiliar setting. Older readers will find much to chew on while the exciting plot remains unhindered by the seriousness of its concepts.
I liked where these themes were going and hope they are pushed further in later books. “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” is unapologetic about being part of a series, existing as a first intake of breath, a constant process of setting-up. But the languorously paced narrative bridges characters across species, worlds and time, with enough violence and sensuality to keep anyone engaged. Taylor makes few missteps: when they come to the dramatic end of this installment, readers will ache for more.