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 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 speaks many languages - not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that colour. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.
Fact: this is one of the best Young Adult books I've read all year.
Right from the first page, Karou's story pulls you straight into her world. No long explanatory digressions, minimal scene-setting; just Karou's voice introducing us to her and her world. Although the novel is third person, the writing is engaging and personal. Karou herself is eloquent, interesting, and more than slightly quirky. I liked her almost instantaneously . . . oh, come on, how on earth could a girl who entertains ideas about dyeing her hair ridiculous colours resist the pull of a blue-haired protagonist?
Furthermore, although the book deals with supernatural elements - including the devil mentioned above, as well as many other things weird and wonderful - nothing is presented to either extreme of underappreciation for their strangeness, or over-described so that it loses its imaginative draw. Although the setting is described sparingly, there is enough of it involved to create atmosphere, without being too underpowering. Sometimes we may be confused as to exactly what is where, but as the setting has relatively little influence on the tale itself, it's a fairly negligible point.
Likewise, the story's plot is pacy and quick off the mark. Things are revealed gradually to the reader without too much intrusion into the narrative and, after a slightly jerky introduction to our second narrator, the book settles into an easy-to-follow rhythm. It's not without its complexities, too - there's more than one sting hidden in this tale - and the sub-plot that later merges with the main part of the story is handled spectacularly, but, mostly, it settles for a quiet cleverness over anything more complicated.
What really won me over, though, was the prose. It is lyrical, taut, and deployed with excellent skill. Some of the metaphors were so lovely they could have melted on my mouth. The author is clearly in love with her craft, and it shows. The imagery occasionaly reaches for something abstract, but never pushes itself too far in its quest for poetic evocation.
The prose really comes into its own in the latter stages of the book, when we come across a flashback narrative. The otherworldly elements of the story are handled deftly and with confidence, and as there are relatively few complex revelations, everything is fairly easy to keep track of until it is all pulled together in the closing stages.
The magical element of the story is original and fascinating, though it can be more than a little disturbing if you think about it too hard. Secondary characters, meanwhile, maintain a bubbling vivacity of their own without impinging too much on the narrators. Lines between the good and the bad are kept suitably blurred to remind the reader that this is not a war of "good vs bad", as its premise might suggest. We see the good and bad aspects of characters from both sides of the war, and, although we can sometimes lose track of the bigger picture through Karou's personal standpoint, we are left mostly to make our own judgements on who's got their foot in their mouth.
Admittedly, the book does stumble over a trait rather typical to Young Adult novels - everyone is so pretty. There are very few characters described as being ugly, and most of our central cast - even the antagonists - are physically stunning. Even some of the more outlandish demons made me look in the mirror with disgust. I'm not usually one to gripe over shallow things like this, but I did get a little tired of everyone being so damned attractive all the time.
On the whole, though, the book is a refreshing take on the supernatural theme; it's original, it's exciting, it's emotionally involving, the prose is gorgeous, and I half wish I'd been the one who wrote it. The romance element may be somewhat discouraging to some, but it's not as intrusive as it might be, and merges with the story, rather than invading and squashing all else out of it.
Couple this with an ending with enough momentum to launch the Voyager spacecraft, and I can assure you that I will be getting my paws on the sequel, come hell or high water.
"Daughter of Smoke and Bone" is available in hardback and paperback from all major online retailers. I am unsure on its ebook status, however. Its sequel, "Days of Blood and Starlight", is due for release next month.
~ Charley R