Although I'm a big fan of traditional fantasy fiction, and although I think Young Adult authors typically write better fantasy than adult authors, I've not been fond of the recent trend toward paranormal fantasy in YA fiction. Sometimes I feel like every third book I order for the Young Adult fiction collection centers on vampires, witches, werewolves, or other paranormal creatures! Therefore, I picked up Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke & Bone not expecting much; the story is a National Book Award finalist, but I didn't think it would be something I would enjoy reading.
Was I wrong! The story of Karou, a 17-year-old girl living a strangely dual life, completely mesmerized me. On the one hand, Karou studies art in Prague, engaged in a very independent, but somewhat typical, teenage world of classes and relationships. On the other, she works for Brimstone, a chimaera who collects teeth from any type of creature for his mysterious purposes. Brimstone is also know as the Wishmonger, and Karou is paid for her morbid missions in wishes -- which come in denominations that allow for only certain levels of magic.
Never is Karou paid in large enough denominations to grant her ultimate wish -- to know who she really is. Karou lives with an emptiness: she has no idea where she came from, or who her family is; the only family she's ever known are the strange assortment of chimaera who live with Brimstone in his hideout, creatures who have raised her. Karou, however, is human - or so she thinks. Though she can use portal that grants entrance to Brimstone's lair, she is only allowed into the front office. She lives caught between the two worlds - not knowing exactly what Brimstone does with the teeth he collects, but also not able to allow her human friends to know about the work she does, or about her childhood with the chimaera. The only blending of worlds that she allows herself is her sketchbook, filled with drawings of the fantastical creatures she meets on her missions; her human friends and teachers simply think she has an incredible imagination, and gift for both drawing and storytelling.
For Karou, the bridge to the truth about herself comes through crisis; a strange encounter with an angel leads to the destruction of all the portals to Brimstone's world, to isolation from her family, and to falling in love. She is plunged into an epic war, and into her true identity.
As in all good literature, Daughter of Smoke & Bone can be read on various levels. Taylor has presented a captivating story of angels and demons, and their interaction with the human world. Through her tale, she just as effectively writes of war, of unthinking hatred between races, and of the love that ultimately leads to another way of living. Karou has always known that her name, the name Brimstone gave her, means "hope" in the ancient language of the chimaera; at the end of the story, Karou learns that her name is no accident.
Taylor plans a sequel to Karou's story; I look forward to reading it. But Daughter of Smoke & Bone is strong enough to stand on its own, as both a wonderful escape into Karou's fantasy world, and a powerful statement about the real world we live in.