I think I made a mistake when I read Daughter of Smoke & Bone so quickly after coming off of the high of Lips Touch: Three Times. Laini Taylor’s got a hothouse style, bejeweled and voluptuous, but cut with a street level sense of banter. This really worked for me in Lips Touch, but here I felt the style was unsteady, or possibly just badly matched to the setting. I’ve complained at length about “poetic language” elsewhere, but the sort form of my complaint is how sometimes writers mistake ornament for essentials, writing a bunch of flower petals when you should write the rose down to the roots. This started reading like that at points: everyone an impossible collection of traits both exquisite and ravaged, rain-slick cobblestone, and an anachronistic American sense of the desultory charms of Europe. Sparrow in her review calls this the “American girl behind the curtain,” which is pretty freaking perfect, really. On the one hand, Taylor’s style is brilliant, making the nod to the readership, a sort of tuning fork with twin prongs of youth culture and diction vibrating against this dreamy vision of the exotic adult world. On the other…I don’t know, I don’t want to complain too loudly here because this worked for me more than it didn’t.
So. Karou is a magical teen in a parent-less Prague, living a double life of artistic adolescence and demonic purpose. Raised by monsters behind a magic door, she helps her parent surrogates acquire teeth for occult purposes by night, and has a tumbling, active teen life in the dreamiest of imaginary schools, with friends raised by gypsies and vagabonds. As I write this out, I’m impressed I didn’t throw this book down in a chapter, because a double special teen and her problems of not fitting in, especially in contrast with how fantastically desirable her beautiful boho-chic life is, this is not a story for me in the abstract. So, yeah, maybe all my bellyaching in the above paragraph is bs, because Taylor’s style is full-throated, strong enough to pull me through what is functionally a paranormal teen romance, and pull me through happily. She’s not making mistakes but choices in her writing manner, and they are smart choices.
And, while I called this a paranormal teen romance, that’s not accurate either. Or it is for the first half, until some things change in a way that it is beyond spoiler to detail too closely. I’ll just say this: these are not simple reversals, where it turns out that good is evil and vice versa, where love conquers all. The last half does pull the flower out by the roots. The shape of Karou’s world expands and textures with her growing understandings, but it also becomes more limited, not just because all the magical doors close, but because of why those doors close, and how, even opened, the doorway will never lead to the same place. This is a nice metaphor, one that works well with the way growing up is an unwieldy mix of upped stakes and diminished prospects, how the open path of all possibilities shrinks once you understand where that path started. I am often bothered by paranormal stories because the magic is pointless, meaningless hokum – oh look at my pretty blue hair, which I have only to show you how special I am – but here the magic is hokum with teeth, and the blue hair isn’t just ornament but signifier of something true and awful: all magic, even the necessary magic of knowledge, comes at a price.
The ending is both breathless and abrupt, the hammer hammer hammer of revelations held aloft in the moment that Karou has to decide what to do next. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger – the questions that fuel the plot have been solved, the riddles of childhood explained – but the story is far from done. I’m not frustrated so much as worried. I think I can trust Taylor, given how adept she is here at reordering the special girl paranormal narrative into something more…what…meaningful? complicated?, but until I know what happens next, where this story takes itself, I can’t say for sure. I pretty much hate when people say, oh but you have to read the whole series to know what you think of the first book, because usually those people are idiot trolls telling me I have to bump up a negative rating on some crapass thing I disliked. But, there’s some truth in it, even for things I liked, and liked a lot.* Star Wars is a kickass three-movie series, but the prequels, if you admit they exist, retroactively encrapify that ass-kicking a bit. (A bit more than a bit if I’m being honest.) So four stars, close to five, for my enjoyment of this book, for its masterful unfoldings. Pray heaven the next blooms that promise into something just as good. You can bet I’ll be reading it.
*Though I’m not changing ratings on things I disliked, especially if I disliked them enough to stop reading and get to the 2000 page mark where I’m told things get awesome, thank you, just as I won’t change this rating even if the next disappoints.