Author Laini Taylor. (Ali Smith, Little Brown )
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: 418 pp., $18.99, ages 15 and up
It isn't only an indisputable truth that opposites attract. In young-adult fiction, it's almost de rigueur. So it is with the kickoff to a new series from National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, in which the most contrarian characters imaginable — an angel and a devil — fall in love.
It's to Taylor's great credit that evil incarnate and its love match in "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" are such imaginative interpretations and that the worlds in which this romance unfolds are likewise so unique: Telling a tale this apocryphal requires serious outside-the-box plot work to pull off. Taylor manages her self-imposed challenge with aplomb.
Karou is a 17-year-old girl who "moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx." Blue-haired and heavily tattooed, she splits her time between studying at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia in Prague and running mysterious errands for an inhuman magician she regards like a father. On any given day, Karou could be penning drawings in a sketchbook, hauling elephant tusks through the Paris subway or collecting kitten teeth in Saigon. It isn't exactly normal, but it's the only life she knows.
Karou has no memory of her parents. Nor does she understand why a group of animal-esque Chimaera has taken her in like family because she's human. Least of all, she has no idea why she's tasked with the grisly work of gathering teeth from locales as far-flung as Marrakech and San Francisco — places she reaches "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" style, through an otherwise ordinary door. Her visits are brief, but such exotic globe-trotting occasionally makes "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" read like a travelogue.
It's on one of her missions that Karou meets Akiva, a winged creature with a "gaze like a lit fuse, scorching the air between them... the most beautiful thing Karou had ever seen." Too bad Akiva was trying to kill her.
Of course, he doesn't succeed. As with so many star-crossed love stories, the tenor of an introduction is a foil for how a romantic involvement will eventually play out. In "Daughter of Smoke and Bone," Karou and Akiva share a connection they don't initially understand, but it grows more clear as Karou uncovers the truth about her past.
An adventurous story of self-identity, "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" is written with high-stakes fantastical flair and a touch of humor. Taylor seems to understand that heavy drama needs occasional lightening up. Many of the book's most engaging moments unfold in dialogue when Karou is among her peers behaving like a true teenager. Her best friend at school is an artist named Zuzana, and the dialogue between them snaps with quick wit as they rib each other about their proclivities and as they banter, for the most part, about boys.
Although Karou is clearly the main character, the story is told in the third person, allowing Taylor to present the thoughts and actions of Akiva and other major players who influence Karou's life and give readers a better understanding of who she is. To be sure, "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" is a complex story, but it is well-told and well-paced, raising intriguing questions about notions of identity, expectation, trust, betrayal and belonging.