Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor has just introduced one of my favorite female protagonists of all time: Karou, a seventeen-year-old artist who lives in Prague. She has bright blue hair, undyed (she claims that it grows that color), a smattering of tattoos, and a family job that requires her to run dangerous errands across the globe at the drop of a hat (she is shot on one errand and contracts malaria on another).
When the novel starts, the reader finds out that Karou has just gotten out of a bad breakup. Her ex-boyfriend is Kaz, a young man who, along with his actor friends, dresses up as a vampire in order to lead tourists on a haunted tour through the old streets of Prague. Although Karou seems too good for Kaz, Taylor provides an example of Karou’s romantic relationships in order to make a point of comparison that will be useful later in the novel. Kaz is just one of the first pieces of Karou’s life introduced to the reader, as the narrator follows her through Prague to her school, where she takes a series of art classes.
While at art class, Karou has the chance to reflect on her drawings, those that fill over ninety notebooks that she carries with her between school and her apartment. Karou’s notebooks are a point of fascination for her friends. They are filled with monsters and creatures that seem imaginary, and Karou has a way of making her friends believe in their fictive nature while all the while insisting they are real. Although many people seem to be interested in Karou, her best friend Zuzana is the only one who is ever concerned about Karou’s constant disappearing act.
I found that this book is so effective because the beginning few chapters are set in the realistic mode, despite the fact that this is a work of fantasy. Karou’s journals, her monsters drawn inside, provide the only hint at there being something more to the story, and yet these drawings seem so outlandish and are backed by so much realism, that at first the story seems nothing but that. It is very much like Harry Potter in that way, grounding the reader in something familiar and normal before spiraling through to something that is most certainly not normal. The reader is slowly let into Karou’s real life, one that takes place in the back of a magical shop run by Brimstone, an imposing beast whose image is found drawn within her notebooks. Brimstone, the reader learns, grants wishes. Karou wears a necklace of scuppies, small beads that grant small wishes. Wishes come in greater sizes, but those are out of reach from Karou and require much to acquire. Karou uses her scuppies to torment her ex-boyfriend, to erase a tattoo, and to make her hair grow out blue. When things start to go wrong in the fantastical world that she was raised in, Karou finds herself leaving behind art school and Prague to find out what has happened to her family.
The novel starts out very realistic, and the fantasy comes slowly, which makes it palatable to the reader. We are slowly let in to Karou’s family life, where we learn she has been raised and cared for by monsters. But from here the fantasy progresses, when Karou’s true nature is revealed, and the secret behind the strange eye tattoos that blacken her palms becomes clear. This novel is just the first in a series, and I am really interested in seeing what comes next, and what happens to Karou’s character. Without giving too much away, Karou’s sense of not feeling “whole” and experiencing the knowledge that she should be somewhere else, is explained by the end of the novel. I found that it seemed to lose something of Karou. The invigorating and exciting character introduced at the beginning of the novel is lost slightly upon the realization or recognition of her true nature, or at least hidden briefly from the reader.
But, for Karou, Prague, and fantasy, this book is definitely worth taking a look at, and I’m looking forward to the next book (and the movie apparently. It’s just been optioned!).