Karou has two lives; her life as an art student in Prague, and her life running inexplicable errands for the monstrous Brimstone, and she’s doing her very best to balance the two. But events are in motion that will destroy that careful equilibrium, and that threaten to force her to choose between those two versions of herself. Where does she truly belong, in the human world, or Elsewhere? And how can she possibly choose when she doesn’t know the first thing about where she comes from?
Daugher of Smoke and Bone is by Laini Taylor, the first in a trilogy, and I honestly defy you not to fall in love with the world she creates in this book. We experience this world (or ‘these worlds’, I should probably say) through Karou, the story’s protagonist. Fierce, sharp as a blade and with an aching loneliness at the core of her which, at the opening of the story, she had hoped to ease via her relationship with Kaz.
“Beautiful Kazimir whose smile used to work on her like a summons, compelling her to his side.”
That, it turns out, had been a mistake, but it sets the scene for Karou as a character beautifully. For all her independence, she is absolutely desperate to love and be loved, and although recent history has made her suspicious of this deep need it hasn’t managed to defeat it entirely.
The story’s mystery unfurls slowly, and in layers. We get hints throughout the early pages, nods to the fact that Karou isn’t quite normal. She can’t be scared. Her hair is blue. She has no need of a taser to defend herself, thanks to “an unusual education”. Her best friend has a lighthearted conversation with her about the monstrous characters she draws; Issa the half-serpent, Yasri with human eyes and a parrot’s beak, fearsome Brimstone, the Wishmonger, with his curling ram’s horns. Only the reader learns that, while Karou’s friends believe these creatures to be imaginary, they are in fact quite real. More than that, they’re Karou’s family. The bigger mysteries (Who is Karou really, and where did she come from? What is Brimstone’s work? Why are handprints being burned into the magic doorways that connect the human world to Brimstone’s workshop?) have their answers come together bit by bit, and although the puzzle pieces may not seem to connect with each other at first they come together throughout the course of the book in a way that I found very satisfying.
This is a world of monsters and magic, where wishes come true if you have the right currency to exchange. Scuppies for small wishes, to silence a creaking floorboard or encourage an itch. Shings for slightly greater desires, moving up through gavriels and, finally, bruxis for the biggest wishes—long life, perfect health, incomparable wealth. It’s a novel idea, and it’s made good use of over the course of the story. I love an interesting magic system, and the one introduced in this book completely captured my imagination.
The supporting characters in Daughter of Smoke and Bone are also delightful, even when they’re not. Textured, distinctive and each adding something distinct to the story. Karou’s best friend in the human world, Zuzanna, who’s had to resign herself to never really understanding her blue-haired friend, is tiny but terrifying. Her chimera family are loving, each in their own way, and protective of their human foster-daughter. Brimstone is the stand out there, of course; the stern surrogate father figure who summons her without compunction and sends her on missions—sometimes awful, sometimes dangerous—to retrieve the teeth he needs for his work. The various hunters and researchers who provide teeth to Brimstone themselves in exchange for wishes or money are relatively minor characters, many showing up for only a scene or two, but they are still each given sufficient attention that they feel like real people. And, of course, there are the angels. Creatures of fire and fury. We get snippets of what they’re up to before they begin to intersect with Karou’s story, and of course when I say ‘they’, I mean ‘he’. Akiva.
Because this is more than just an adventure story about a girl raised by monsters, art student-slash-tooth collector, wielder of wishes. This is a story about connection, that specific magic of recognising the very core of another person at first meeting. It’s got romance, is what I’m getting at. Because it takes a while to build, and my policy is to avoid spoilers by not talking about specifics from the second half of a book where I can avoid it, I’ll just say this: the love story that plays out is complicated and tentative, absolutely beautiful, and it neither overshadows the other elements of the plot nor plays out at a complete remove.
The writing in general is wonderful in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Atmospheric and lyrical. Whether Karou is in Prague, Paris, Marrakesh or Elsewhere, you feel like you’re there with her. The descriptions can get a little caught up in themselves, but by and large they only enhance the otherworldly atmosphere of the story. The pace is spot-on, lingering long enough on Karou’s life in the human world for us to appreciate what she’s made for herself before hurtling into the high drama of the plot proper. Conflicts that are introduced are given sufficient context that they really feel like they matter, and the resolutions (when they come—this is, as mentioned, the start of a trilogy, so we can’t solve it all in the first book) are well-earned and satisfying. The strong character work really pays off in a lot of these, and you can trust Taylor to have her cast behave consistently and solve problems in ways that make sense for them as individuals. Karou drives the plot forwards with her actions, and always propelled by the same burning desires; to belong, and to understand.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone feels truly original in a way that very few fantasy stories I’ve read have felt. Stunningly written, with a compelling main character and a world full of mysteries you’ll be itching to unravel, I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough to readers of fantasy.