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?
As someone who makes a point of avoiding the romance genre and has a particular distaste for any story that even remotely has the true-love-conquers–all trope, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone caught me by surprise. This is a fantasy novel where the whole premise is based on the fates of star-crossed lovers–and yet, this story has so much more to offer: this is a story that explores colonization, racism and the pointlessness of war in a way that very few Young Adult (and even Adult) books have been able to do.
In fact, though love plays a huge role in this story, it is heavily influenced by war and hatred, primarily by the hatred between the chimaera–half-animal and half-human creatures and our protagonist Karou’s family–and the seraphim–winged human like warrior race, one of whom is our other MC and Karou’s love interest.
The first half of the story is, simply put, magical. The world-building is so exquisite, and combined with Taylor’s whimsical, beautiful prose and vibrant, well-developed and extremely interesting characters (monsters and humans alike) made me fall in love with this story and all the people in it. The pacing was even, at least for the first half of the book, and though some of Taylor’s descriptions and sentences made me cringe (like the time when she described Karou as being creamy and leggy), her narration style was full of such intrigue and mystery that I couldn’t help but be pulled into Karou’s world.
The moment she meets her love interest Akiva though, things fell flat for me–but only for a little while. I am not at all fond of the romance in this novel, even now, after having read it cover to cover. There is an abundance of love-at-first-sight tropes and soulmate tropes in literature, and in this book, no matter how beautifully Laini Taylor tried to make it seem, it just did not work.
Thankfully the book picks up quickly after the rather dull and frankly cringy romantic encounters between Karou and Akiva, and we start to see the complexity of the plot and the whole series. This was where I knew I was going to love this book no matter how it ended: this was where we begin to have a glimpse of how colonization led to a war that has been raging for millennia and fueled senseless hatred between two races–seraphim and chimaera–who could have achieved so much more together if the seraphim had not considered the chimaera to be beasts, savages, inferior and oppressed them.
One of the things that I love about literature–about art in general–is how it captures real life problems and conflicts and puts them in perspective so we can understand reality better, so we can understand why we do cruel things when we have the potential to do more. Without a doubt the chimaera here represents all the human races to have been colonized and the seraphim represent the colonizers in human history, but what’s more important that Daughter of Smoke and Bone acknowledges why and how such brutality came to be: just like the colonizers in human history, the seraphim believed that they were doing the chimaera a favor because they were providing the chimaera with written word, aqueducts and tall buildings…at the price of their freedom.
“The land had never been theirs. They had small farm holdings, stone hovels. At the most villages. The cities were built by the Empire, and not just cities. Viaducts, harbors, roads–“
“But it was where they’d been born and died since, like, the beginning of everything? Where they fell in love, raised their babies, buried their elders. So what if they hadn’t build cities on it? Wasn’t it still theirs?”
Though the first book only explores racism and prejudices through the story of two lovers whose warring races would never accept their relationship, would consider it abhorrent, the book managed to paint a vivid picture of the complicated history between these two races without overwhelming the reader with too much information. There is a lot of info-dump during the latter half of the book, but Taylor makes it easy for the reader to keep up.
As for the conclusion…well…I have read a lot of books with cliff-hanger endings, but very few can beat the kind of WTF plot-twist that Taylor saves for her readers in the end. Word of advice: buy the entire trilogy before starting this book. You will be dying to know what comes next.