I know, I know. My forays into recent YA fantasy have been mostly devastating (with the exception of Patrick Ness, who is awesome) and it seems that I keep falling for the same kind of hype. But Laini Taylor has been praised not only by voracious YA readers but by pretty much everyone, and I feel reluctant writing off a new (to me) writer just because the hype seems insincere (again). You know the feeling, right?
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011
ebook: 391 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
My rating: 2,5/10
First sentence: Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.
When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?
Oh boy… it is at times like these that I am grateful I don’t have a lot of followers. Or at least not the kind of followers who will rip me apart for disliking a beloved book. Let’s do this! Karou is a young girl who goes to an art school in Prague. What her quirky best friend Zuzana doesn’t know is that Karou leads a second life. A life of running errands for the only family she has – a group of chimaera, monsters if you will, with bodies that are part human and part animal. Karou knows almost nothing about the chimaera or their magic which makes for a great premise and immediately drew me into the story. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t really focus on these interesting bits enough. Instead, she has other things in mind. Let me explain with this quote:
Karou was, simply, lovely. Creamy and leggy, with long azure hair and the eyes of a silent-movie star, she moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx. Beyond merely pretty, her face was vibrantly alive, her gaze always sparkling and luminous, and she had a birdlike way of cocking her head, her lips pressed together while her dark eyes danced, that hinted at secrets and mysteries.
This is worrying for two reasons. One, nobody is that perfect. Personally, I like my heroines flawed – physically as well as otherwise – and except for photoshopped supermodels, I have never seen a woman who could be described like this. I only quoted this one part, because it shows just how über-perfect Karou is and how clunky the language in which she is described. But there are numerous occasions on which Karou’s perfection is highlighted. Her ballet-dancer figure, her shiny hair. Every single girl and woman I know has in some way suffered because she didn’t fit the current beauty ideal. Having struggled with my own weight and a pimply face for quite a few years, I find it much easier to sympathise with protagonists who are in some way like me. Give her too bushy eyebrows, a potato nose, crooked front teeth – something to make her more realistic. I should also mention, that everyobdy in this book is of otherworldy beauty. I’ll grant that some of these characters actually are supernatural and I’ll forgive them their perfection, but with everybody being beautiful, the word just lost its meaning.
The second reason this paragraph struck me as awful was that this is a third person limited narrative. Meaning, we see and know only what Karou sees and knows. That is essential to the plot, because for the most part of the story, she is rather clueless. Then I read this paragraph and wonder how full of oneself a person has to be to describe herself in such a manner. Had another viewpoint character spotted her and thought these things, everything would be peachy, it would be his perception of her. The way it was done? Not ok. On a sidenote, the other viewpoint character does see her and describes her in equally flowery, cheesy language. So there you go.
Having gotten the author’s obsession with physical beauty out of the way, there were other things that rubbed me the wrong way. As the story progresses, Karou stops thinking about her love life and starts thinking more about survival. But there is a clear line between her adventures concerning the chimaera world and Karou’s real world life. The latter never offers more than conversations about boys, idiotic stereotypical girl characters and – you guessed it – more talk about how beautiful everybody is. This became worse and worse, especially when the male romantic lead shows up. It was at that point that the writing took a terrible spin for wanna-be-poetic, but ended up being clunky and, a lot of times, illogical.
[…]when I saw her smile I wondered what it would be like to make her smile. I thought… I thought it would be like the discovery of smiling.
Apart from strange and not very elegant sentences like the one above, there are tons of continuity and logical mistakes in this book. Remember, this is third person limited. However, when we switch between the two protagonists, Akiva knows things that Karou only thought to herself in the last chapter, never said out loud. He has information that he couldn’t possibly have – unless he’s also a mind-reader. Frequently, you will find moments of head-jumping in the middle of a chapter. Generally, that’s ok. It is the inconsistency that bothered me. The author couldn’t make up her mind whether to use a third person limited or third person omniscient perspective. The fact that you never know what you’ll get in a given chapter is massively annoying.
But speaking of Akiva… oh boy. If you’re a Twilight fan, you will probably find him cute and strong and protective and whatnot, but let’s face it. He is 50 years old. He stalks Karou, watches her sleep, and – without warning, by the way – falls in love with her. Well, the only “warning” we get is that Karou is beautiful. That’s enough, right? Apart from being a creepy, old stalker who falls in love with a girl who could be his dauther, this felt wrong to me on so many levels. If at least there had been an actual romance, a getting to know each other and slowly falling in love, maybe (though probalby not) I wouldn’t feel so strongly about this. But it’s insta-love. And just because it is insta-love on second sight doesn’t change that fact. Karou is also most taken with Akiva’s beauty. At least people are equally shallow in this story – men are worthless if they don’t look pretty just the same way women are.
The bottom line is: A 17-year-old girl and a 50-year-old man fall in love because of how pretty they are. I am disgusted.
At pretty much the exact point the “romance” starts, Laini Taylor apparently decided to entirely drop all plot. Everything that we get to read in the second half of the book is how two impossibly beautiful people are in love after only a few minutes together. The last third was definitely the worst, though. Not only because the prose reaches levels of cheesiness that I thought were impossible but because the story is interrupted for flashbacks. Flashbacks that tell us – in minute and achingly boring detail – things we already know! In somewhat decent foreshadowing, we were given all the information we needed. But it seems that we get the prequel included in this first of a trilogy. Needless to say, it slowed down what was already a very loose plot to a standstill.
Let me mention the few things that were done well. In the first half of the book (this is vital, the second half is pure torture), the story was actually quite immersive, and hard to put down. It promised to show us a world of wonder, a world filled with monsters and dark magic – all of which was unceremoniously dropped for a lame romance between a child and an oldish man and for flashbacks with more gorgeous people telling each other how perfect they are.
Another thing I liked (again, only in the beginning) was Taylor’s sense of humor. Zuzana, who was mostly there for comic relief, always had something funny to say. Even Brimstone came up with the occasional chuckle-worthy sentence.
I don’t know many rules to live by,” he said. “But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles – drug or tattoo – and… no inessential penises, either.”
I could rant much more because this could have been a great book. If somebody had dared to tell the author to stay on track with the plot and to tune down the descriptions of beauty and flowery language a bit, it could have worked. This way, the book was just horrible. A fresh idea wasted on somebody who lacked either the will or help to execute it well.
THE GOOD: A great idea and a thrilling beginning.
THE BAD: Every character is of unnatural beauty, the language is clunky, there are logical mistakes galore, the romance is revolting, the plot gets dropped mid-book. Plus, cliffhanger (for those who care what happens).
THE VERDICT: Not recommended. Dear YA authors. Not every story needs a forced romance, especially between an old man and a teenage girl. Age is not just about how old you look, it is about experience and maturity. This was a pretty terrible book.
RATING: 2,5/10 – Terrible
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