I’ll confess that this has been the most challenging review I’ve had to write in all of 2011, because for a book with such critical acclaim and progressive potential, this didn’t strike me as well as I hoped it would.
To sum up my thoughts about “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” in a single sentence – a promising urban-fantasy tale dwindles down into a lackluster love story. For being the first book in an ongoing series, I’m underwhelmed by it, though I think Laini Taylor has a flair for creating a unique sense of place/worldbuilding. I’m not sure if it’s enough to make me excited to read the next book in this series, because, even at the point where the novel ends, I’m not intrigued enough. Particularly considering some revelations regarding Karou’s character that make me wonder if she’s going to even be remotely close to the character she started out as (and I don’t say that from a developmental standpoint, and to say would spoil quite a bit of the story).
Karou is a young woman who lives an intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary double life. On one hand, she’s a talented art student within Prague with a crazy but well-meaning best friend and an overly zealous ex-boyfriend (both of whom I found to be hilarious in spurts). On the other hand, she’s an errand runner for a sorcerer and one who can hold her own when it comes to wielding magic. Yet when it comes to Karou’s personal history, she doesn’t have much of one. That changes when she meets the seraphim Akiva, who has more of a handle on who Karou really is and holds the key to unlocking her identity.
I’m going to approach this review with a summary of the book’s “good, bad, and ugly” as far as how it struck me, and I know it might differ from a lot of people who probably loved this book to tears. While I can say there were parts I liked, there were also parts that I thought the author could’ve handled much better to give the novel much more even arrangement. I’ll confess that after a point in the novel, I knew where it was going, but that didn’t disappoint me as much as the way Taylor chooses to progress it. One thing at a time though.
The GOOD: The worldbuilding, imagery, and humor. Taylor illustrates the rules of magic, the setting of Prague, and the rapport between the established characters with amazing clarity throughout “Daughter of Smoke and Bone.” Karou is a likable protagonist with a distinctive and charming voice that shows through her interactions with her normal and out-of-the-ordinary lifestyles. It also helps that she’s proactive, at least as far as the first half of the story is concerned.
The BAD: The overarching characterization. It may seem contradictory for me to say this since I mentioned Karou is likable, as are the characters surrounding her, but as far as the development is concerned, there’s a distinct lack of it for each of these characters in terms of how they grow. This is especially apparent when the love story starts kicking into gear and there are some characters (notably Akiva) who suffer from any measurable developmental changes that would make it easier for their ordeals to resonate. In Akiva’s case, I never really saw him as a character with a strong distinction, and that’s important for any romantic hero/male lead in order for a love story to work. For some, he might be. For me – he was all icing and no cake. I mean, I like icing, but I like a little more substance from my romantic heroes.
Hence why, as a story that built itself so intricately to push the romance – it failed for me, crashed and burned. It seemed equally unbelievable to me that Karou would lose some of her edge when Akiva came onto the scene. Yet, I think this aspect of the novel wouldn’t have been as jarring if it weren’t for the major factor that really threw me off the bandwagon.
Drum roll…The UGLY – Plot sequencing and progression. This book did not sequence itself well. The story jumps were jarring and choppy, especially considering Karou is the driving force behind this novel for a good while. When it started jumping perspectives to Akiva and then to Madrigal, I think that’s when the novel started showing its wear around the seams. If taking them individually, certain arcs were strong in themselves (the first half of the novel went well for me, but petered out in the second). Some might think that the second half of the novel is better because of the mythic lore, depends on your preference, but the lack of cohesion is what drove me up the wall.
I would say if this aspect were done a bit better, it would’ve been a better read for me. I’m not knocking the overall story in its intentions because I understood where it was going, but to have the last third of the novel be an info dump into the story as far as Madrigal and Akiva were concerned, it made it difficult for me to finish the novel because it felt like these characters came too late, too much in the vein of backstory to really resonate with me. There may be some readers who are able to follow it better and may even forgive some of the story’s missteps if they’re really into it, but it threw me out. Several times.
Even with its missteps, I don’t regret reading it. The story’s strong beginning, environment, and character voice (Karou) drew me in and didn’t let go for a while. I’m still feeling the sting from the latter half of the novel, but I think I will read on for the second book because I’m patient and well…I’m hoping with the reveals surrounding Karou’s character that we might see a bit of her stronger character and voice return. (And maybe I can hope that the romance feels a little less forced down my throat.)
Strong reading performed by Khristine Hvam in the audiobook version.
Overall score: 3/5