Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Post otherwise titled ‘Why all non-YA/fantasy fans should read this book’. 

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” So opens what is by far one of the most unique, captivating, and acutely tragic books I have read to date. Recommended to me by an extremely knowledgeable friend, I had expected to find myself confronted with the standard YA/fantasy formula (supernatural being + girl = love doomed to apocalyptic level failure). While ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ doesn’t stray too far from these elements (although not a vampire in sight), Laini Taylor executes her narrative with flawless style and such individuality that comparison with other books becomes a near impossibility. It is a plot that grips from the opening page and one that you will not forget in a hurry.

‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ tells the story of Karou, a teenage art student living in Prague, forced to run errands for the demonic Brimstone. Having spent her life split between the human world and Elsewhere, she finds herself questioning Brimstone’s motivations, the purpose of his work (collecting a variety of human teeth), and her own role in this strange existence. But her life is disrupted when mysterious handprints begin to appear on the doors to Elsewhere and she finds herself engaged in a violent confrontation with the angel Akiva. When Brimstone and his companions disappear, Karou is forced to face her past and the story of how she came to be in Brimstone’s possession. With the help of Akiva, Karou unravels the mystery of her existence and is confronted with a truth that threatens to tear her apart – that of her own demonic origins. With this knowledge, Karou must make a choice; a choice between her loyalties to Brimstone and her growing love for Akiva.

Now, I am quite sure that there a number of non-YA/fantasy readers who have already closed this post, while the rest are continuing to read with disdain. But it is largely for you, my fantasy-rejecting readers, that I am writing this review. Because this book has the potential to make converts of you all. My summary cannot begin to do justice to the intricacies of the plot line or the maturity and insight with which it is executed. While natural comparisons have tended towards Phillip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy and the like, I would argue that such comparison misses something central to the book’s purpose and style. Rather, Laini Taylor strikes me as something of a more fantastical Isabel Allende and her style an inversion of Allende’s magical realism (realistic magicalism perhaps??). Because at the centre of this book is something truly and incontrovertibly human. Because, in amongst all of the angels and demons, the question being asked here is ‘Who defines what we are?’

“It is the condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry ‘Monster!’ and looked behind him.” 

I am fully aware that I have taken on quite a challenge in trying to persuade those of you who steer clear of fantasy books that this is one worth reading. But that’s ok! And I hope, at the very least, the YA/fantasy aficionados out there will hunt out ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’, because you absolutely will not regret it. But for the hesitant among you, I will say this. That, for me, the best books are those that create an avenue for escape from the everyday, while provoking some sort of introspection that seeps over into real life. The best books are those that really push your imagination while simultaneously handing you something to carry back with you when the pages are closed. To me, ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ does all of these things. It offers both escapism and introspection at their best. And to take a story so steeped in the fantastical but never lose sight of the reader is, I think, truly a thing of literary beauty.

So no pressure. And, if any of you are on the fence, I have a somewhat battered copy that I am prepared to offer up. Yes, I’m that serious (plus, if my book stacks grow any further, I am genuinely concerned that I will end up on an episode of Hoarders).

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