Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Magic and Will - Smoke and Bone

~Daughter of Smoke & Bone~
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Book 1

By Laini Taylor
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

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 grows 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 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?

It's impossible for me to start out with anything other than how much I loved this book. So there, I said it. I went into this one not knowing anything other than the gorgeous cover, that it had nearly topped Amazon's Best Books of 2011 list, and that it was (most likely) YA fantasy. It took me maybe 5 chapters before I was completely hooked, and maybe just a few more before I knew I loved it.

This book read beautifully. I've read stream-of-consciousness narratives, bare-bones description narratives, and even a few artsier narratives, but this book blew me away with its way of speaking. Descriptions were neither tedious nor sparse, but were melodious, whimsical, and, dare I say poetic? Yes, though I'll admit that poetry isn't my cup of tea, I found this narrative to be poetic while still giving me the substance and form I'm used to. Much different than any other novel I've read.

That goes for the setting as well. Set primarily in Prague, there is a lot of description about the city. But though it's set in the real world, in our world, there is so much fantastical description woven throughout the mundane, it's almost like it is another world. Such that when we do travel to another world (or dimension), it doesn't feel nearly as alien as it could.

Speaking of aliens, what about our blue-haired heroine? Karou is your typical teenaged heroine character: smart, witty, pretty, confident, caring, independent, curious, has a unique family, and can't shake the feeling she's missing something. And maybe it was the blue hair, her sense of humor, or maybe because we first meet her following a break-up in which she was not crushed with woe, nor completely okay either, but I instantly fell in love. She was simultaneously the ideal heroine, and yet was still realistic in her thoughts, emotions, and fears. And the love only continued throughout the book.

Karou goes through a lot in the course of the novel, but I never felt any of her actions were forced. Everything is built from past experiences, and everything is explained - again, not tediously but where it is pertinent - so you feel like you're following alongside her instead of three steps behind. And that hers is a quest for knowledge makes it even more relatable, and all the more enticing to keep reading. We want to know what it's all about just as much as Karou does. So even without being in a first person narrative, we're still just as connected throughout the journey.

But the journey isn't just Karou's, it's also Akiva's. Akiva, our love interest and sometimes narrative perspective, serves mostly as a plot device to fill in the gaps of Karou's perspective. That's not a bad thing, considering we're ultimately on a fact-finding journey so the more information the better, but it does create a little bit of a drag whenever it switches to his backstory. He's not as strong a character yet, mostly because we don't get as much time with him as with Karou, but by the end of the book I think what we get does pay off.

Romantically, Akiva is a bit creepy. Granted, he doesn't start out as a romantic interest - in fact he starts out as Karou's would-be killer. And the stalking (with possible death in mind) doesn't help his case either. Add to that a love-at-first-sight type of meeting, and you'd think I'd throw my hands up in disgust. But... it just worked. I really don't want to spoil anything, so I won't make the obvious comparison, but I guess if you're having a hard time with the guy, just hang in there for the big picture.

And speaking of Akiva, the mythology in this book was amazing. I was just discussing with a friend my disappointments with angel teen-lit lately, how some of them can be preachy or extremely narrow-minded in terms of religion. Here, there are angels and demons (of a sort), but they're not based in our world at all. In fact, it's stated pretty clearly that the world's religions don't have a clue, so religion is a non-issue.

I thought it hugely liberating to be able to deal with angels and demons as species instead of beings tied to our world or our morality. In fact, morality is highly questionable on both sides of the angel-demon war. It definitely makes choosing your alliance difficult when loathsome characters (like Joram and Thiago) and sympathetic characters (such as Brimstone and Hazael) occupy both sides. And I won't even get started on the magic system, which is more than enough to offend some witchcraft-shunning readers. Still, I welcomed the unique spin on the age-old struggle and look forward to seeing how things turn out in the 'end'.

And speaking of nearly abandoning a character-type, I'm happy to say I've found a redeemer for the 'best friend' in teen lit. Zuzana has got to be my favorite best friend of all time. In so much teen fiction these days, the best friend is either a throw-away cardboard cut-out, a source of constant drama, or ends up being more of a frienemy than a BFF. Zuzana, on the other hand, is never vindictive or jealous but is instead supportive of Karou even when things get weird. And most importantly, she's actually a full-fledged character in her own right, one with goals, feelings, interests, a sense of humor, and a story - even if she doesn't get the narrative. Her dialog scenes with Karou were by far my favorites in the book. I'm so happy to know she doesn't disappear in book two - I think I would cry if I never saw her again!

Which brings me to the ending. I can't say I didn't see it coming, even without the knowledge of a sequel, that this book would have a cliffhanger. Karou states her mission about halfway through the book, and when we still haven't gotten to it by the beginning of part four, I knew there was no way we were going to experience it before the end of this book. Don't get me wrong, this is a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, but it's not the end of Karou and Akiva's story. A cliffhanger was really the only way to put a back cover on the 432-page book, so I don't begrudge it any more than I do the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter books. Just be ready to grab book two, Days of Blood & Starlight!

Overall, I don't think there's any way to convey how much I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone, nor how quickly you should read it. Any fan of fantasy, strong heroines, star-crossed romances, teen literature or gorgeous prose should check this book out immediately. There is a reason it made it to #6 on Amazon's best books list. Due to the romantic tone and some mature themes concerning war and morality, I'd probably recommend this more for high school and up, though I couldn't find any specific language, violence, or sex that would have me strongly advising against younger readers. It doesn't take a bruxis to get your hands on a copy, so what are you waiting for?

Approximate Reading Time: 5 Hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Khristine Hvam
Length: 12.5 Hours
Listened at 2.5x Speed

First thing I gotta say: the discs are absolutely gorgeous. I never get much chance to say that - they're usually plain or just a copy of the cover art. But these guys at Hachette Audio went all out, contrasting the cover image in teal with the naturally reflective disk surface for the title and disk number. Not something that would really affect your listening experience, but it's nice to see an audiobook take that extra step to make their product that much more appealing.

Khristine was a joy to listen to. She brought life to all the characters, through both emotion and adding loveable (but still understandable) accents where applicable. Zuzana and Brimstone were particular favorites, each having unique voices but never sounding as if the narrator was "doing a voice". An excellent narrator, who I hope sticks around for the sequels!

I did notice a couple changes from the audio copy and the print copy. Most noticeably, upon first meeting Akiva his swords are described on his back in the print copy, but in the audio he's said to have a single sword at his waist. Other than that, both copies wove together seamlessly.

And lastly, as if you needed more than a great reader and a great story, the audiobook ends with a 7-minute interview with the author. She goes into her writing process and how the idea for Daughter of Smoke & Bone was born. A nice extra after experiencing a great read.