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Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

This is a story about angels and devils. The very first page proclaims it as such, with a tantalizing opening that leaves the reader wondering (or thinking that they already know) about the story behind it:

Once upon a time
an angel and a devil
fell in love.
It did not end well.

Knowing that angels and devils are traditional foes in Christian theology, from the beginning the reader is already clued in to the fact that there’s going to be a forbidden love somewhere along the road. The joy of this many-faceted gem of a book is that it unravels its tale like a Russian Matryoshka doll, a story within a story within a story.

There is a mystery to be solved within the pages of this book, as we discover once presented with Karou, the blue-haired seventeen year old art lyceum student who is our heroine. At school, Karou is known for her talent for drawing pictures of fantastic creatures of mixed human and animal aspect, whom she lovingly calls by the names of Brimstone, Issa, Yasri, and Twiga. Her classmates flock to see her sketchbooks, and ask about the scenes depicted in each well-detailed drawing. What they don’t know is that the drawings are real–that these four chimaera are the only family Karou has ever known, and that Karou leads a double life running (sometimes dangerous) errands around the world for Brimstone via magic doorways that lead in the blink of an eye to locations as far away as Paris, Saigon, San Francisco, and Marrakesh.

Karou loves her adoptive family. But that love is not enough to fill the aching emptiness that she has felt all her life. She asks questions, but receives no answers. Until the day her adoptive family is lost to her, and an enigmatic stranger who should be her enemy but feels like he isn’t enters her life and changes it forever.

Karou’s story is told in two parts. The first part is mostly set in modern-day Prague, the heart of Bohemia. And Laini Taylor has a way with words that makes this magical city come alive and leap off the pages. You feel that you are actually standing on the medieval Charles Bridge, gazing out across the waters of the Vltava at the spires and columns of Prague Old Town. You can smell the hazy smoke and absorb the gothic atmosphere of Poison Goulash, Karou and her best friend Zuzana’s favorite hangout.

There is poetry in Taylor’s descriptive phrases that echo Patricia McKillip’s  writing, only more earthy and grounded than airy and etherial, which make them all the more immediate in their impact. This tone carries on to the second part of the story, which shifts to the chimaera homeworld, a land torn by war and hate and misunderstanding.

Laini Taylor does not shy away from depicting the horrors of war, and without giving anything away, I would say that if there’s one lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that in war there are no winners. Both sides fighting in a war think that they are the “good guys”, and more often than not both sides end up committing atrocities for what they deem to be the sake of “right”.

And yet, amidst the death and destruction wrought by an otherworldy war, an inexplicable love story blossoms between Karou and her enigmatic stranger, which Taylor paints as not so much as love at first sight as a true meeting of souls. Unless you’re an avid reader of romances, you might need a bit of suspension of disbelief to easily swallow this part, especially during the initial stages of its development. Myself, I’d just finished reading Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Blade a few books back, so it was a tad easier for me to pick up the clues underpinning the romance.

Karou is a strong female character who can literally kick ass (she’s trained in karate and who knows what other martial arts, thanks to a sensei in Hong Kong accessed via magic doorway), but she’s also mature enough to admit her need for love, and to realize when the love being offerred is false or true. Readers will find themselves rooting for her and hoping that she finds a way to banish that emptiness upon meeting and getting to know the seraphim Akiva, who is himself a lost soul. Akiva’s story is told primarily through flashbacks that cut through the first part of the book and intertwine with the second, and he becomes slightly more humanized with each appearance, as he begins to realize exactly how important Karou is to him. 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a book about magic and mysteries, wishes and hope, choices and consequences, desires and destiny. Each of the characters in the book is revealed to the reader as a creature of conflicting emotions and motivations, and Taylor has woven a complex web around them to create her story. We are given to understand that our own choices and decisions will always affect others. But even as our destinies unfold based on these choices, even when events don’t transpire as we expect them to, there is always hope.

There are two editions of this book available locally in the Philippines, the hardcover American release and a slightly cheaper trade paperback international release. Since this book is definitely going into my keeper shelf, you can guess which one I got. ^^;; As this is the first book in a projected trilogy, readers have much to look forward to. It will be a year before the next book comes out (sigh), and I wish that there was a way for me to get my hands on an ARC when Hatchette starts distributing them, but either way I’m definitely pre-ordering book two once a firm release date is set.

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