My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[Thar be spoilers here, matey! And I hate those fiddly spoiler tags, so I’m just wantonly spoiling everything left and right. This is your only warning.]
[OOPS, the review didn’t cut’n’paste correctly from Goodreads the first time! There was a big gaping hole in the middle. Apologies to anyone who read this in the last 24 hours and couldn’t make head or tail of it.]
I need to start this review with a caveat: I am a weirdo.
Okay! Whew! Good to have that off my chest! But seriously, I want to acknowledge fully and honestly that most of my issues with this book are probably MY idiosyncratic issues, and may not apply to anyone else. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to review a book as if I were someone else, so you’re stuck with me and my idiosyncracies I fear.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a good book. The first half, truly, was stellar. Laini Taylor is clearly one of those people who pays close attention to the sensory world around her, and it shows. The early pages of this book are just dripping with rich detail; it reminds me of myself in certain moods, walking around with my head open (as I like to think of it), soaking up everything like a sponge. For sheer beauty and atmosphere, I can’t remember the last time I read a writer this good. Even the “ugly” is rendered picturesquely grotesque or sublime. She’s a capital-R Romantic.
I won’t lie: sometimes it’s too pretty. It’s so pretty one fails to notice other shortcomings. We humans are suckers for beauty, as Brimstone said.
In the early chapters, I think she did an exquisite job capturing the precarious preciousness of seventeen. I remember being that age; it was just as heady for me, and I wasn’t even beautiful. (RACHEL’S ISSUE, FIRST SIGHTING! Spot the rest, win a prize! Kidding about the prize!) But there’s something dizzying and glorious about being on your own at seventeen. You’re so FREE, free to go to class or not, free to lose your virginity to some jerkass, free to experiment, free to adopt an irritatingly precious Bohemian persona and eat at a restaurant where the tables are coffins and turn every conversation into hip, quippy banter. Yehhhhhs. I’ve been there and done that, and I still have a certain indulgent, nostalgic fondness for myself at that age.
But I grew up. Growing up was hard, but it was also important, right, and good.
Now we come to the sticking point with this book, for me. I see Karou all artsy and blue-haired and innocent at the beginning (even though she protests that she’s not innocent: she knows where the teeth come from! She’s been shot! She lost her virginity!). Um, yeah, Karou? Still innocent. The quote on the back of the book is about innocence, so I had a certain expectation that this will be a book about growing up.
Annnnd… it’s not. And the whole book rings a little hollow for me because of that.
I anticipate your objections: but she learns the terrible TRUTH! She was ignorant and then she is knowledgeable! The man she loves killed her family!
Yeah. That happens. But I’m not really getting a lot of processing or introspection from Karou regarding any of these things, or her part in them. Growing up is not just about gaining knowledge, or we could all read books about it and be done. Growing up is work. Introspection, integration, striving, and struggling. Painful, exhilarating WORK.
I don’t see her working. Insta-love is pre-fab and effortless. Her art is effortless. Her badassery is effortless. Her acquisition of knowledge is effortless (and Madrigal seems no less innocent than Karou, for all that she’s had a darker, harder life and has killed Seraphim)(I will quote and argue, if you like, but I don’t have time this moment). Madrigal and Akiva dream of peace, even supposedly plan for it, but we aren’t privy to any of the actual, y’know, WORK of making plans, which is much more tedious than making love I guess. I don’t even feel the effort involved in Karou tearing herself away from Akiva at the end, because it happens off screen. The extent of her self-scrutiny seems to be “I feel lonely and incomplete” and “I am sickened by the pain tithe, but my people needed those teeth” and “I probably shouldn’t love Akiva, but I do.” Mixed feelings are good, but they’re not the same as introspection and integration, which take work.
I’m just not feeling the depths here, friends. I’m not feeling that Karou has any hidden darkness in herself that she’s willing to shine a light on. Madrigal expresses shame, but Brimstone comes and absolves her, and then it’s all ok! Yay!
Now, having said all this, I want to underscore something you may have lost sight of: this is not a bad book. It’s a good book. Every book doesn’t necessarily have to meet all my unreasonable demands. Maybe the sequels will address my unreasonable demands, who knows? I hope so, but I can’t judge this book based on hope (SEE WHAT I DID THAR!). I guess the key to my disappointment is the fact that Taylor can clearly make sentences like a freaky genius, which got me expecting that there would be corresponding psychological depths to be plumbed. And I’m not convinced there are. This was a piece of hollow candy, to me.
But let me end on a positive note: lots of beautiful (and comical) lines have been quoted from this book, but my very favourite line of all was when she learned to fly, and she’s up high looking up at the stars, and Taylor writes: “The sky looked sugared.” That’s the kind of no-holds-barred inventive imagery this woman is capable of; “sugared” evokes not just the crystalline gleam of the stars, but a taste and texture as well, all that in a single word. That’s efficiency. That’s brilliant. That says to me hey, the depth thing will catch up eventually. All the potential is there.