Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
At the head of my litmus test for YA literature rests the question, "will my students like the book?"
Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke & Bone presents on the surface as another aberrant fantasy, willed and forged to be the next peculiar and maybe even unsettling HBO series--a modern Romanesque retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Except everyone is a beast.
An attentive reader will note the patience in the writing style. The novel takes its time to develop character history and a depth of conflict. The reader...we can't really say follows because the journey is not linear...the reader steps and veers with the protagonist, Karou, a seventeen year-old female. Who also happens to be in art classes. And who also happens to run errands for a demon.
Yes, an angel falls in love with a devil...more or less. At war for centuries, Juliet and Romeo catch eyes across a crowd...and...wait, Karou and Akiva catch eyes and fall in love. He forsakes angeldom (my word) and she wants to discover who she really is. Aside from a few dramatic fight scenes or revelations of an angels fiery wings to the gasping and awe-struck general public, the angel/devil thing really fades into the background for much of the novel. The story carries the day--and an old, classic story at that--forbidden love.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone does justice to the use of magic by devaluing it (for all its impact on the plot). The real magic, as the story unfolds, is in hope. And one's will. Magic, as a matter of fact, does not solve anything and one of the powerful demons in the story, Brimstone, even speaks to the fact that all of this, the magic the war, must go away. Magic won't end the war and the war won't end anything--all war is useless. The only thing that does matter is the hope and will for a new world...a new perspective...and a coming together. A positive message and one I always appreciate in YA fantasy.
I feel like my students will like this book because its heroine, Karou, presents well. Hip, funky, honest...beautiful, artistic, clever...tough, resilient, brave...Taylor constantly places Karou in situations that reveal another favorable layer. With her long shimmering blue hair, a predilection for hand-to-hand combat, and a sharp artist's hand and eye, Karou is just likeable.
Additionally, Taylor spoon feeds the adolescent (female adolescent especially) heart with ladles of tender and/or romantic moments--the kiss where the male places his hands on her face (who could resist the two-handed face kiss?); the fact that he smells like the sea or is described with other warm and cuddly similes; and the overall patina of one true love, sought for through the centuries..."I will find you!" Etc. Etc. Etc. Adolescent hearts eat this up.
Add the moments of light humor where (with magic) Karou is able to make her ex-boyfriend's butt itch, and redesign the eyebrows of the girl he cheated on her with...into one great furry stripe. I imagine Bert's eyebrow from Sesame Street.
Initially, I pulled the book aside as possible literature circle choice because I remembered the feeling of challenging vocabulary yet one that fell into a clear 8th grade-level context. On a second reading, I started to note vocabulary words to pull for my 8th graders should they chose to read this book: scribe, tout, demurral, melancholy, irrevocably, impending, lapsis lazuli, chivvied, trill, teeming, souks, perverse, squalling, genteel, preened, plummage, lank, emanate, djellaba, plundered, exhumed, dregs, sodden, dirham, scrabble, bedraggled, smite, revulsion, juddered, loathsome, lurched, residue, appalled, keening, susurrous, seraph, seraphim, engorged, abomination, imploring, supplication, moiling, kohl-rimmed, kindled, fervor, tumult, tributaries, souks, skirr, incandescence incongruous, lissome, scapula, parried, mythos, pathos, furrowed, emanated, detonation, hindered...and that was just from pages 80 through 100!
I'm looking forward to working with next year's creative writing classes as we will be adding this book as a literature circle choice. With much to talk about here in a classical context, or in terms of vocabulary, or sentence composition and complexity...Daughter of Smoke and Bone passes the litmus test. I'm confident my kids will like it on its own merits, and then garner so much more out of it in discussion and written reflection...or imitation!
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