The name Laini Taylor may still be an unfamiliar one for many readers of fantasy, but probably not for much longer. Taylor’s first novels, Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer (later shortened to just Blackbringer for Firebird’s reprint edition) and Silksinger, were wonderful middle-grade fantasies that brought cheroot-smoking crows and powerful djinn into the realm of fairy, with writing equal parts playfulness and precision. Aimed at the upper end of the middle-grade spectrum, they were much beloved by a discerning coterie of librarians and kidlit bloggers, but the series was put on hold by the publisher (though Taylor has said she plans to finish it at some point). The author then moved onto that rarest of beasts, a YA short story collection, with Lips Touch: Three Times. Gathering three long fantasy short stories, with beautiful illustrations by her husband, artist Jim Di Bartolo, the book was a nominee for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category in 2009, garnering much-deserved attention.
Taylor’s previous books are all well worth tracking down, as is her latest, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Daughter is the first in a trilogy, and was won by Little, Brown in a well-publicized and hotly contested auction. As a result, it comes standard with the requisite mountain of buzz with extra buzz sprinkles on top. That kind of attention can sometimes mean a book isn’t taken as seriously as it deserves to be, which would be a great shame for a novel that’s the most unusual, intricate, and challenging YA fantasy of the year.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone opens with a cryptic prologue of sorts, a single page that informs the reader: ‘‘Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.’’ Thus warned, the story proper begins in an exquisitely rendered Prague by introducing us to a blue-haired teenage artist raised by monsters named Karou. It’s a regular old Monday morning, and Karou heads into her studio drawing class, where she meets up with her friend Zuzana. It seems Karou’s sketchbooks have been famous among her classmates ever since she was a child. The chimaera depicted within them – Issa, Kishmish, Yasri, and the father figure, ram-horned Brimstone the Wishmonger – are secretly her family, though regarded as the inhabitants of Karou’s rich inner fantasy life by her real-world friends. In fact, Karou always tells the truth about her life, but with a wink. When Zuzana asks what Brimstone’s been up to, Karou responds, ‘‘Buying teeth from murderers.’’ Zuzana doesn’t believe her, of course, but Karou does gather teeth – of many kinds – for Brimstone’s mysterious needs, and in return she earns wishes, typically in the smallest denomination of ‘‘scuppies,’’ good only for small things like turning your hair permanently blue.
Suddenly, though, her errands turn more frequent than usual. At the same time, beings that sound suspiciously like angels are spotted across the planet burning black hand-prints onto doors, doors that serve as portals between Brimstone’s domain of Elsewhere and the real-world places Karou must travel. When Karou has a run-in with the angel Akiva on a teeth-retrieval mission to Morocco, he nearly kills her – only to become obsessed with tracking her down after she escapes. At their next encounter, more of the world she’s never fully understood is revealed to her, including that the seraphim and the chimaera are locked in a long-running and brutal war.
To reveal anything more here would do this fine novel a disservice. Not least because I can sense the wheels turning as you think, ‘‘This sounds like the typical angel love-interest story. No thanks.’’ There is a strong central romance at the novel’s heart, and I’ll admit I got nervous when it first presented on the page. The tiger-eyed angel immediately fixated on the beautiful teenage protagonist? It felt like extremely dangerous territory, heading toward cliché, in a book that had avoided all of them to that point. But the reason Daughter of Smoke and Bone is such a special novel is that Taylor – as in her earlier work – has great faith in the reader to hang in there, knowing she’ll take us somewhere we don’t expect. Here, she does so more successfully than ever before. She trusts the reader to follow where she leads, and, in return, reinvents the whole idea of the ‘‘love-at-first-sight’’ romance in a way that makes it both legitimate and oh-so-complicated. The great surprise will be if readers don’t fall in love with this world and its blue-haired heroine in droves.