Image for Daughter of Smoke and BoneAuthor: Laini Taylor

Maybe I’ve been reading too many young-adult novels lately, but I’m starting to get Teen Fantasy Title Fatigue. Regardless of their actual quality, every new book seems to be weighed down with an absurdly grand and meaningless title like Midnight’s Firefall: Book 1 of the Platinum Bloodwar Cycle or something. So you’ll excuse me for suspecting more of the same when I heard about Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and why I was hesitant to read it for that reason. I still think it’s a pretty clunky title, which hints at some of the book’s problems, but it’s a better story than its name would suggest.

Karou is a 17-year-old art student in Prague. An outsider even among the art-school crowd, she has few friends, and those friends have learned to accept her eccentricities: her fluency in random languages, her evasiveness about her past, her habit of disappearing for days and returning exhausted and covered in bruises. She’s also a gifted artist, filling dozens of sketchbooks with the ongoing adventures of a group of monstrous mythical creatures — chimeras — which her classmates peruse as avidly as a comic book. What they don’t realize is that the creatures are real, and they’re the closest thing to family that Karou has ever known. Given to the chimera Brimstone as a young child to serve as an apprentice in his magical shop, Karou has grown into an errand-girl who helps him with his trade: he buys teeth of all kinds, no questions asked, and pays in wishes. But even after many years, Brimstone still refuses to tell her what the teeth are for or teach her how to do real magic, and she resents her lowly status and inability to have a normal life. She’s also plagued by the feeling that she’s forgotten something essential about herself, that she’s meant to be doing something else completely. But when Karou encounters the fiery-eyed, super-sexy angel Akiva in a Marrakesh street market, she may not like the answers he has about her past… and her destiny.

Aside from the fact that there’s no reason at all for the story to be set in Prague (and indeed, it quickly takes off from there, for the better), the setting feels like just that: a backdrop sketched in behind the characters to lend them some exotic color. Karou and her BFF talk like Gilmore Girls, a rapid-fire barrage of verbose banter that mostly feels like it’s trying too hard, and sounds strangely mismatched when it smacks up against the more fantastical portions of the story and abruptly changes to a sort of mystically solemn fairy-tale tone. The pacing is a bit uneven in the second half, when the action frequently has to stop so that a character can give an expository speech, but that’s a problem that plagues all first installments of trilogies, so I’ll cut the author some slack there.

In its favor, the story’s universe is richly imagined and detailed, complete with a mythological history of how humanity’s dealings with these “angels” has influenced religion and language. The premise that fulfilling your own magic wishes by harvesting the pain of others is a neat concept, and one that forces Karou to examine her own immaturity as she begins to consider her connections to others. And the main characters are pleasingly flawed: Karou is curious and tough, but also proud and secretive; Brimstone is a caring father figure who has a violent and ruthless side; Akiva is loving and courageous, yet emotionally passive and weak.

While Daughter can be a little choppy and rough around the edges, like Karou herself, its enthusiasm and energy comes through clearly and makes for a quick and engaging read. Naturally, this volume ends with a suspenseful cliffhanger; unfortunately for fans, the next book isn’t due out until fall 2012. But don’t let that keep you from this fast-paced fantasy with more than a touch of supernatural romance.

Stephanie Perry
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