Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Read by Khristine Hvam.
“Once upon a time, an angel fell in love with a demon. It did not end well.”
So begins this story, which has at its heart two relationships: one, between the angel and the demon, but more importantly, between a demon and his human-looking daughter. We first meet Karou, an art student in Prague, dealing with a broken heart and longing for revenge from the boy she’s recently and very deservedly dumped. Her classmates, including her best friend Susanna (I’m assuming it’s spelled that way, though pronounced “Zuzanna”), know to ask after her sketchbook each Monday. It’s filled with pictures of unbelievable creatures – beautiful Issa, with the head and upper torso of a woman and the lower half of a giant snake, tiny humming birds with moth wings, and great Brimstone, bigger than a man, with a man’s torso and the head and lower half of a great goat with curling horns. There are always stories to go along with the pictures – how a trader haggled too much over the teeth he was trying to sell Brimstone and nearly got himself strangled by the snake all visitor’s to Brimstone’s shop must wear around their necks, for example. Karou says that her stories are true, that her hair naturally grows out blue, with a quirk of expression that makes people believe that she isn’t telling the truth. Except she is. The creatures are Chimerae, and the only family Karou has ever known. She’s grown up in Brimstone’s shop, watching him make necklaces of teeth, being given wishes in various denominations, from the tiny scuppies that look like trading beads and grant correspondingly tiny wishes, to the larger lucknows that made her hair grow permanently blue and let her speak any number of languages fluently, to the great gavriels she’s never been trusted with which could give her the power of flight. Mostly now she lives in the human world, coming back to Brimstone’s shop – which has a magic door that can appear all over the world – only when he needs her to run errands for him, mostly buying teeth. Though Brimstone and Karou clearly love each other, it’s a very authoritarian relationship. Brimstone won’t answer any of Karou’s multitude of questions about where she came from and what his shop of teeth is for, but is openly critical of the casual things she spends her wishes on, and her relationship with her body, including the tattoos (but why then, she wonders, did he give her the giant eye tattoos on the palms of her hands?) and allowing “unnecessary penises” access. Still, all is hunky dory until one day in Morocco, when Karou is chased down and nearly killed by an angel with flaming eyes and sword, who’s also burned a black handprint on the door back to Brimstone’s shop. Soon Brimstone throws Karou out of his shop, but when she goes back, the door is completely burned. And meeting with the angel again, she finds that they are drawn to each other despite the bad start. Flashbacks tell us of the long-ago romance between the angel Akiva and his lover, the chimera Madrigal, whose unhappy fate has scarred him but which we learn of in detail only late in the story. The basic crime is clear: angels and chimerae have been at war for milennia, and woe to anyone who dares to fall in love with the enemy. Calling them angels and demons is deceptive, because the lines of actual good and evil aren’t clearly drawn and both sides are fighting for survival, justifiably convinced the other side would wipe them out if it could.
The big war would seem to be the major plot focus of the book, but it seemed to me tertiary in the book, behind Karou’s relationship with Brimstone, the developing romance, and the exploration of the worlds and magic/wish system. Karou’s art, her personality and friends, the scenes of Prague and Marakkesh are all vividly painted and real, while the war seemed meant to be a backdrop, and an unwelcome intrusion when it came to the surface of the story. I felt like this was essentially a character and relationship study, to which Taylor felt she needed to add an exciting plot. That being said, the overall storyline seemed Shakespearean in nature, with misunderstandings and secrets leading to tragedy. I was also frustrated by finding out at the end of the book that it’s the first book in the series, with major plot points from this book left unresolved. It’s also a fine audio production, with periodic theme music around major book sections adding to Hvam’s excellent reading.