This review contains spoilers.
The protagonist of Daughter of Smoke and Bone is Karou, a young woman living in Prague, studying art and running esoteric errands for Brimstone, a shady underworld-type character who also happens to be part-human, part-bull. Brimstone’s the only parent Karou’s ever known, alongside his two assistants, who are also part-human, part-animal.
In Brimstone’s workshop (which is not quite of this world: its front door opens onto more than one place) is a door Karou’s never been allowed to pass. When she finally gets a chance to sneak through, she finds a caged city, almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, full of people like Brimstone: chimera.
And then Akiva appears while she’s running an errand: an impossibly handsome man who can fly, an angel who tries to kill Karou for reasons she’s unsure of.
Turns out the seraphim and the chimera are locked in an endless, ageless war, and have been for millennia, after the chimera rose up against oppressors who saw in them only animals. Karou (and here be major spoilers) is, all unknowingly, one of the chimera, reincarnated after being executed for loving Akiva, her enemy, and raised in the human world by Brimstone to keep her safe.
I struggled with thinking about Daughter of Smoke and Bone; it’s slippery, and defies simple readings. It’s tempting to look only at its paranormal romance elements, its tragic, brooding hero who has more than a whiff of the Edward Cullen about him, and read it as the kind of YA fantasy which transmutes the heady emotion of teenagerhood and makes it objectively as earth-shattering as it feels – so that our two young lovers (I think we have to ignore the fact that Akiva must be at least twice as old as the reincarnated Karou, lest we become too cynical) are literally a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, separated by thousands of years of enmity.
And the book’s fantastic elements do work in a way that supports this reading: specifically, in the way that the novel is split neatly into two parts, one set in Prague following Karou’s present day life and one in the world behind Brimstone’s door (which is properly called Eretz, but which Karou rather more interestingly dubs Elsewhere), exploring her past life. It’s a structure that seems to reinforce the idea of fantasy as a mirror to the real world, one in which repressed or invisible forces (viz., teenage lust and confusion) get free rein.
But. That’s actually too reductive a reading. Taylor’s setting is too strange and vivid, the horrors of the war she describes not even close to adequately contained by the love story it foregrounds. Elsewhere reminds me very strongly of (strangely enough) William Blake’s work: the militant joylessness of the seraphim and the contrasting joyful physicality and grace of the supposedly demonic chimera; the sense of the nigh-apocalyptic age of this war; above all, the saturated symbolic colour of it, the way everything feels significant and vibrant and strange. Elsewhere isn’t a place that lives, really; it’s a place that is. You can’t imagine living there; it exists as a way to tell stories. And yet, like Blake’s work, the moral ambiguity here is nigh-untangleable. The seraphim are oppressors, but the chimera are too, in their own way. What we end up with is a war so vast and terrible that it is literally unspeakable, un-containable, overflowing the narrow bounds of psychological fantasy.
It feels vaguely ridiculous to be comparing Daughter of Smoke and Bone to Blake’s work; not because Laini Taylor is a bad writer, but because Blake was a visionary of such genius that to compare almost anything to him is practically a category error. But I think that Blake’s subversion, particularly his religious subversion (see, for instance, “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Experience), is important to Daughter of Smoke and Bone: I think what Taylor is doing here is rethinking monstrosity.
Let’s say: Daughter of Smoke and Bone is not in fact a romance, at least not primarily. Karou’s family – Brimstone and his assistants – and her female friend Zuzana are at least as important to her (refreshingly) as Akiva is. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the story of Karou’s finding out who she is; who her family and friends are; what she means. The question Taylor’s asking is: what happens if you find out you’re a monster?
When Karou fights angels above the streets of Prague, she’s aware of how the watching public will react. She knows that she looks like the bad guy in this story, no matter that the angels are trying to kill her. The chimera are devils – given that name by the seraphim, and worse besides. What do you do if you find out you are Other, that you are coded as monstrous by nature?
Going further: this is a story about oppression; about a society that has divided itself so completely, through such deliberate, sustained mutual incomprehension, that all it can do is fight. It’s also a story that destabilises our expectations, shows up the essentially sterile nature of the Biblical good/evil binary, the toxicity of coding an entire group of people as monstrously Other. If we’re rooting for anyone in this war, we’re rooting for the chimera, because of Karou and her identification with them.
Elsewhere, then, is sterile and static. It cannot change by itself; which is why Karou’s being raised outside that world is important. Her name means (so we’re told) “hope”; she is, potentially, an agent of change, a way to break the stalemate.
There are two further books in the series, where I suspect we find out what becomes of Elsewhere. I’m not sure, yet, if I’ll read them: I found Daughter of Smoke and Bone OK, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the shivering horror of its barren, warring world. Still: I think there are some great ideas here, if you can read around Akiva’s brooding.