Monday, April 29, 2013

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

Title: Daughter of Smoke & Bone
Author: Laini Taylor
Publisher: Hachette Gook Group
Rating: WORTHY!

This novel was amazing, but that doesn't mean that there weren't issues with it, as I shall describe below; however, I was sufficiently impressed with it that I wanted to launch into the sequel right away. Fortunately I had that option because I came late to this series. It would have been really annoying had I to wait a year or something like that before I could get started on volume 2.

There was a magnificent thunderstorm going on overhead as I initially wrote this, with heavy rain and even hail! It was beautiful, and amazing, and highly appropriate to this story as I sat here with a nice hot cuppa, feeling warm and dry, and reading onwards, ever onwards.

The main protagonist here is Karou, a 17-year-old art student living in Prague (a location which made an impression on the author when she was working on another project). Kudos to her for having the smarts to set her novel away from north America, which is the center of the world to far too many YA authors. Karou was raised by chimera and is taught to despise and fear angels. So immediately we know who her "other half" is going to end up being, don't we?

The saddest thing about Karou is that we meet her in this story as she feels like she desperately needs a man to complete her. That's an appalling thing to do to a character, especially if you're a female author, and it's entirely the wrong message to send to young readers. No, no girl needs a partner to complete her unless she's appallingly weak. It's not a strength to come into a relationship being needy, and it will doom the relationship eventually. Karou lost a lot of my sympathy right there, as indeed would a guy if he'd expressed the same kind of feelings.

Karou lives in a world full of the utterly amazing, and while I am sure it would feel a wee bit mundane to her, having lived with it all her life, Karou's character shows us that she's not jaded with her world by any means, yet I started out feeling that she would break into song ("Some Day My Prince Will Come...") before so very long. Fortunately, she doesn't have seven chimera doting on her, otherwise I'd really have begun to worry! I hoped, as I continued into this, that there was more to her than we learn in the first few chapters and I was, thankfully, granted that wish.

Talking of which, in addition to living amongst the amazing, Karou gets wishes granted. One of those was her "natural" azure hair. She never needs to touch up her roots. She also has some rather evil African beads which grant her very minor wishes, and which we find her employing during one of her classes, to inflict uncomfortable and embarrassing itches on the nude model, who happens to be her ex. He wants her back, but she very wisely wants nothing more to do with him. I was glad to see that resilience in her.

Karou's best friend is the petite Zuzana who knows nothing of Karou's real life and is from time-to-time annoyed by her secretiveness. Zuzana (along with all the other art students at the academy which Karou attends) think that the amazing drawings Karou does are from her crazy imagination, and that the stories she tells about the characters she draws are wild inventions, but Karou finds it easier to tell the truth about her family, all the while pretending it's oddball fiction. In that way, she's never caught in a lie. Her friends have no idea that they are real-life portraits, and real stories of her "family", which consists of the grim, dour Brimstone, who has ram's horns inter alia, the cobra-esque Issa (evidently like a mermaid but with a sea snake tail rather than a sea bass tail), Twiga, who sports a giraffe-proportioned neck; and Yasri who has a bird's beak. There's also a little messenger bird called Kishmish, who summons her to do Brimstone's bidding. And that's where the story takes off.

Brimstone's employment of Karou is an oddity in itself. She will discover his need for her services via a terse message brought to her by Kishmish always, it seems, at an inopportune time. His requirement is invariably the same: she is to go to one part of the world or another and buy teeth with the money he gives her, returning them to Brimstone's den. Karou can travel easily because the door to Brimstone's den opens into every city in the world. She can leave from it at any time and go anywhere, but in order to get back, she has to knock on a certain designated door and wait for Issa to let her in. One time she has to go to Paris to get elephant tusks, another time to Singapore to get reptile teeth. Brimstone won't tell her what he does with these teeth.

So having established all this, we next move on to Akiva, the standard trope angel of the story, whose muscles are corded on his arms. Yes, corded! Now someone needs to tell me what these angels of light are doing with their muscular bodies. Why is that muscle needed? In all this time no one ever explained this to me. They have the power of a god behind them (so we're expected to believe - the most powerful force in the universe), so why would they need muscles? Akiva can burn his hand-print on a door - as long as it's wood, I never learned what happened if the door was metal or plastic. So again, why would he need muscles? With all this angelic power and an omnipotent god, why does Akiva - or any angel - need corded muscles? And don't even get me started on his ethereal beauty and his burning eyes. Why are they so beautiful? Rest assured that he also no doubt has a smokin' bone from which you should most definitely protect your daughter....

Clearly this is nothing more than wish-fulfillment on the part of the author - the tedious trope muscular guy with hair falling into his eyes and a rebel attitude. I already thoroughly detest him and his ilk, and at that point, while I sincerely hoped that the story would improve (it did, fortunately), but I also sat in disbelief at the lack of inventiveness on the part of YA authors; at their short-sightedness and inability to create something new and original. Then I wondered, "Whose wish-fulfillment is going on here?" These YA authors are only supplying what the readership is demands, so maybe the problem isn't the authors, but the readership - the sad state of USA teen females who cannot see beyond the end of their nipples? But no, it's the writers, too. Writing is often described as a solitary, even lonely, profession, but actually it's a team sport. The writers work in tandem with the readers. The author creates the bobsled, but the readers agree to board it with them in exchange for a wild ride - or not. You can't sell what no one will buy, and you can't read what no one will write. The bottom line, however, is that writers could change this if they chose so to do, so it's more on them than on the readers.

So having established Akiva, we have to get the two of them together, and this occurs on a weird mission upon which Karou is dispatched at Brimstone's urging. He even said "please" in his note. In fact, that was all he said, which intrigued Karou. When she visited him, she learned that he feared she had chosen to leave the chimera! This was not even something she'd considered possible, let alone considered doing. She's sent to Morocco to get human teeth, and as she left, she was spotted by Akiva who was approaching it for the purpose of burning his hand-print on it. So he sees Karou leave and is sufficiently intrigued by her youth, appearance, and general demeanor that he starts following her through the city.

He watches her meet her mark and buy some teeth (not the juvenile ones - Brimstone only took the mature ones), but then the seller sees Akiva, as does the deformed angel on the seller's back, and as does Karou. Her mark warns her to run - run and warn Brimstone that the seraphim have got back in! She runs, but is intercepted by Akiva right at the door through which she's desperately seeking to make her escape. A fight ensues, but he fails to kill her and she uses her eye tattoos - the ones on the palms of her hands, to blast him. He asks her who she is before the door is finally opened and Issa lets her inside.

So now we have the male protag fascinated by the female, but we're not done with Karou yet. When she sneaks behind a door she's not supposed to go through, Brimstone himself literally throws her out! She's out in the cold, but at least she has her apartment to retreat to, half undressed as she is. Note to self: if I'm ever going to sneak through a demon door, make sure I'm fully clothed for the outdoors, and also that I have my purse and sketch pad with me. Oh, and those burned imprints on the doors? They go off like incendiary bombs and Karou discovers this when a burning Kishmish dies in her hands. He was sent to her with one thing which is tied to Brimstone: a wishbone he always had around his neck - a wishbone he absolutely forbade Karou ever to touch. And now she has it in her hands, making a wish that she can get to Brimstone and her family and nothing happens.

Well, one thing happens - her BFF Zuzana is with Karou and sees this creature burning, and after a wish demo using one of Karou's African beads, Zuzana is fully on board with the truth about her friend. Talking of wishes, Karou starts hunting down those teeth suppliers she knows of who visited the shop personally, and were paid with wish coins. There are several denominations of wish coin, and Karou needs one of a specific value to get the wish she wants - to be able to fly.

Meanwhile, Akiva has tracked down Karou and is spying on her through her bedroom window, creepily watching her sleep. That's never a good thing and if anyone tells you it's a sign of true love, just slap them upside the head, and walk away quickly. This story had been awesome so far, but I felt I was really going to start disliking it if it was to become a tired YA romance drowned in trope and cliché after having had page after page after page of refreshing, warming, interesting novel.

I think I should say a word here about instadore (my word for insta-love since it never is love - it's infatuation, or lust, or cluelessness). There's an element of it in this novel, but it's nowhere near as badly done as it is in some other stories I've read. I'd mention the execrable Felon (not its real name, but maybe what it ought to have been titled!), but then I'd have to go rinse my mouth out with carbolic. I think there's a case for distinguishing between instadore in a paranormal romance and the same thing in your common-or-garbage romance, because they aren't the same thing - hence the paranormal part!

There's a distinction to be made between a supernatural compulsion and an ordinary infatuation, so I think we need to allow a bit more leeway there, but having said that, there are limits! I don't think Taylor exceeds them, but she comes closer than I like. Yes, she reports undercurrents between the two main protagonists, and sometimes she makes me feel a tad nauseous with her excess, but in general, she does a good job of showing this powerful attraction while keeping it tamed.

Moving right along, now! It was inevitable that Karou would realize, even though she could not see him, that someone (Akiva) was tailing her, so she lay in wait for him and a fight ensued during which he parried her attack without striking out himself. Once she blasted him with those eyes on her palms, he was pretty much done, and she hesitated then, failing to deliver a death blow. We're to learn that there's a really interesting parallel to this. Eventually, Karou takes him back to her apartment where they talk and slowly, an uneasy truce is born between them.

Zuzana came over and checked him out, but as they were all making their way over the river bridge the next morning, Karou still intent upon finding that portal back to her family, Akiva's two war buddies, Hazael and his sister, the feisty Liraz, showed up demanding to know what was going on with Karou - demanding to know who she was. Yes, they had been spying on him, and brilliant warrior that he was, he hadn't even noticed. More absurd, they had watched him being beaten within a cubit of his life by Karou, and had failed to intervene! Some friends, huh? That struck me as decidedly weird and not in keeping with the intent of their kind: a disbelief no-longer-suspended moment.

So on the bridge right before this showdown, there's this weird scene where Akiva espies the wishbone which Karou wears around her neck - the one she inherited from Brimstone. The weird thing is that this literally brings Akiva to his knees, and while he's down there, his face against her legs, he next buries that same face in her hair?! How does he do that given that her hair does not come down to her knees? Does Akiva also have a giraffe neck? That just sounded really strange to me - something a decent book editor would have caught.

And then there's the Liraz insult! (I would love to read a story about Liraz!) "...Liraz was more frightening, she always had been; perhaps she'd had to be, being female." What the heck does that mean? And this is written by a female writer! But it was not about humans, it was about angels! Are we to understand that there's genderism in Heaven? Given the misogynistic tone of both the Bible and the Koran (and all too much religious literature), that wouldn't surprise me at all. I'm sure glad I'm not going to heaven.

But here's the angle on angels: if angels have no genitals, then what does it even mean that there are "males" and "females"? Yes, I understand that the eternal genitals don't define gender, it's the size of the gamete, the larger one defining the female, but this doesn't rob me of my point, which is: what would be the point? And how in hell (strike that - how in heaven!) can there be relationships with them as depicted in so many books?! How can there be half-breeds? And whence did this 'angels have no genitals' even derive? It's never mentioned in the religious primary sources (where angels are, of course, exclusively men and, as far as we can be expected to believe, must be just like men, genitals included, otherwise why specify their gender?).

Frankly, I can't get into this 'war in heaven' angels & demons crap and take it seriously, I really can't, which is why I'm probably the best placed writer to write the definitive angel story, if I could only get my act together...! But it does mean that I'm paying Taylor a really big compliment (indeed, an entire complement of compliments) when I say I have enjoyed this story more than all too many of the stories I've waded through recently.

Now would be a good time to relate Akiva's flashback if I wanted to reveal any more story, but I won't. The flashbacks did interrupt the flow of the narrative somewhat, but they didn't seem that bad to me, and they were necessary. Whether they could have been added in a different place to better effect is debatable.

I liked this novel overall. Yes, there was still too much cliché and trope, but I was willing to overlook that for the enjoyment the rest of it brought me, so I rate this a worthy read.