There’s been so much buzz about this book and its sequel, Days of Blood and Starlight. Also it’s set in Prague so I was sold. This review will contain spoilers – not, like, major revelations that will indelibly mar your enjoyment of the book, but you have to understand that for the first 50 pages we just follow Karou, her sketchbook and her art school friends around their mundane muggle existence. All the supernatural stuff seethes beneath the surface, but it’s only hinted at.
Karou was adopted as a baby by a couple of chimaera – these might best be described as mythological human-animal hybrids, though they come in a breathtaking variety of configurations. Karou has no idea where she comes from – or for that matter where they come from, since it is only revealed about a quarter of the way in that the chimaera inhabit their own parallel world, known as Eretz (Karou, who speaks a dozen languages, immediately cottons on to the fact that this is “earth” or “land” in Hebrew). Also inhabiting this parallel world: The seraphim, a race of angels who have been engaged in a war of extinction against the chimaera for the past millennium. When you think of seraphim just picture the chiseled perfection of Paul Bethany’s Archangel Michael inLegion (2009), and you will probably be good. In fact, the centuries-long conflict between seraphim and chimaera calls to mind another film, 2003’s Underworld, where the enmity between vampires and lycans traces its roots to an era when the former kept the latter in bondage until the latter eventually (inevitably) rebelled. The chimaera were likewise enslaved by the seraphim, and it is telling that the seraphim justify this treatment by labeling them “brutes,” “barbarians,” “monsters”; by pointing to how the seraphim built roads and libraries and basically brought the light of civilization to those backwards beasts in their mud huts. Without, of course, bothering to consult the beasts in question. It’s a case of a technologically “advanced” culture claiming to know what’s best for their “primitive” neighbors, with the racialized otherness of the chimaera adding another familiar dimension to their oppression.
So Karou falls in love with a seraph. That’s the plot of the book. It’s both the strongest and the weakest aspect of the narrative, because on the one hand her constant angsting about how impossibly beautiful he is and how she’s not supposed to be attracted to him because he is, after all, a soldier tasked with her adopted family’s extermination – all of it can grow tiresome, like an unironic Taylor Swift song (of which there are mercifully few, thank the lord). On the other hand your intoxicating adolescent first love is not a phenomenon that’s best explored by trying to get some perspective; it is on the contrary best to immerse yourself wholly in the experience, and that’s what Laini Taylor gives us: She captures that state of mind when not touching your beloved is an act that gives you physical pain.
This book makes me long for publishers to be braver about putting portal fantasies on the market. Not that it’s primarily a portal fantasy, but there is undeniably a portal, and it does leads to another world. It is probably an indication of my fondness for this subgenre that as soon as the portal’s existence was revealed I immediately begun to speculate that Karou was not from our world at all. “The changeling child” is such an all-purpose awesome trope. Other awesome tropes identified: Brimstone is a respectable Gandalf/Dumbledore/Obi-Wan mentor-cum-father figure, just as gruff and aloof as you would expect.
In conclusion I enjoyed Daughter of Smoke and Bone and will definitely be picking up the sequel, Days of Blood and Starlight, even though I will cop to reservations about the … juvenility? … of its depictions of romantic relationships. But I mean if I was actually seriously bothered about this kind of thing I would have hauled my butt out of the genre by now.