Meet Karou, a reclusive seventeen-year old art student who lives in Prague. She is a girl with incredible blue hair and a collection of strange tattoos, including one on each wrist (reading “True” and “Story”) and open eyes (hamsas) in the centre of each palm. She draws fantastical creatures called chimaeras, made up of mish-mash body parts taken from different animals. She tells equally fantastic stories about them with a cynical grin and people think she just has colourful imagination like every artist. The problem is that these stories are true and she really leads a double life – something not always easy to combine, especially if you are a school- attending teenager and you’d rather hang out with your friends doing stuff…
Karou lives on the fringes of two words, never sure where she really belongs and who or what she is. Her chimaera family is hardly willing to reveal any secrets and more and more frequently her foster father, called Brimstone, sends her out on strange and dangerous missions around the globe to buy teeth of different creatures, human teeth among them, in underworld black markets. Karou brings them back to his secretive magical workshop but she is never told what he needs them for and why so many are needed at all. She becomes sick and tired of these missions and secrecy.
When scorched black handprints starts appearing on doors to different magical portals all over the world, rumors start flying of angel sightings. The acpocalypse seems to be drawing near. But it’s not until Karou comes face-to-face with one of these angels, a seraph warrior to boot, in a back alley in Marrakesh that she realizes what it really means to her. It seems the apocalypse will be something very personal. The angel, treating her as an enemy at first, tries to kill her but then, unexpectedly, he decides against it. It seems that he recognized her and Karou is drawn to him as if they were meant to be together and she has been looking for him all along. Is he really the one?
What I liked:
The way the book starts. It is a paranormal romance but it starts where usually such novels never dare to thread – Karou rejects, like for the umpteen time, a clumsy attempt to kiss and make up, made by a boy called Kazimir who is a devastatingly handsome young actor and a selfish orifice in one (quite a mish-mash, don’t you think?)- as soon as he took Karou’s virginity he boasted of it to all Prague and the immediate vicinity in minute detail; he also started cheating on her with one of their mutual friends in no time at all. Now he wants Karou back because… she can help him earn more money. Isn’t he a sweetie? Such a piece of normality in an YA book I always like and appreciate. The way Karou treated the said orifice boy (ok: an asshole, here you go) was also great – her feelings were hurt but she still showed a great sense of humour and a lot of integrity. Let’s face it, integrity is something most contemporary teens seem never heard of so it was a fantastic lesson delivered without moralizing. Well done!
The setting. Prague is a magical city and it was obvious the author has felt that charm as well. The fact that this book’s narration takes place mostly there I found really enticing and I must mention we get a few nice descriptions of different streets and places. What a pity we never hear Zuzana or Karou actually speak Czech.
As I’ve already mentioning the setting…the narration pace is not bad either! Laini Taylor weaves words together beautifully and she crafts the plot so that you are completely pulled into her world, captivated and forced to read on. You simply devour her creations and her unique fantasy Prague. I liked demons a.k.a. chimeras the best.
The sense of humour. It is always easier to make me like a book when one or several of characters are cynically sweet. Here the dialogues between Karou and her friend Zuzana were my favourite scenes. That and the little creature called Kishmish – I simply adore the name! If you don’t know any Slavonic language you might wonder why – here is the explanation. I use this word from time to time if I want to describe something that doesn’t resemble really anything at all. Kishmish, as its name indicates, is a mixture of different animals, in this case a bat and a crow or a raven. A great idea for a name of a small demonic entity!
Finally…the wishes. You know the saying – be careful what you wish for because sometimes you can get it. It is a recurrent theme in this book as well – emphasizing the fact that plenty of people don’t think about their wishes at all despite the fact that they should do it for their own good. Brimstone pays for the teeth he buys with wishes currency in the form of beads or metal discs; some of these wishes are innocuous – they can do little more than make another person sneeze or itch; the others can be so enormous that the rippling consequences are impossible to predict. The whole premise brings new meaning to the saying, quoted above. I like new meanings so I enjoyed it very much. I hope that narrative theme will be continued.
What I didn’t like:
Well…angels. As simple as that. No surprises, I know – more often than not I have issues with them. In this novel angels are not only divided into males and females (the same is true for demons) and I somehow always find such a division deeply wrong, but they also come as heavily muscled, incredibly handsome/beautiful beings which, nevertheless, have to use a bathroom (gasp!) and shave (a double gasp!) Of course I am thinking about the males but I suppose she-angels shave as well, maybe just different body parts; anyway I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Well, would it actually hurt if these angels turned into humans? Ok, I might have survived angels and their shaving issues if not for another, bigger snag. Enter Akiva, the bane of the book!
Akiva the seraph warrior and the main squeeze of our sweet Karou is too handsome and too schematic for his own good. Almost no sense of humour, just a lot of attitude, soldier training and two big wings which can set a house on fire. No fun. To tell you the truth while I was truly engrossed in the first half of this book, by the time Akiva was introduced and the story began describing his love with Madrigal (a demon girlfriend from his past, I say no more because it is a major spoiler) I had slowly begun to lose interest. I simply knew what would happen next as if a malevolent fallen angel whispered it in my ear. Unfortunately I was right every single time. No good – omniscience is bad for your morale.
Then the pinkish romantic thread hit me like a ton of rose petals (always nicer than a ton of bricks but equally heavy and a bit stifling after a while) – Romeo and Julliet, the star-crossed lovers and their tragic story haunted me all over again throughout the second part plus some reincarnation as condiment and an eternal battle between…er…two evils…well…anyway these were the most silly parts in otherwise quite original YA book. I can clearly see the direction in which the author is going and so I am half in half out for the next installment that, I am sure, will be published in the near future. I fear it might ruin the initial premise for me. It would be such a pity. What’s more, we might not return to Prague any time soon although I do hope we will. We’ll see.
Not bad start for an YA romantic book but…I have a feeling it might get worse. A lot worse. I do hope I am wrong. Still, before I get the second installment I will have to read some reliable reviews.
This is an amazing book, in lots of ways. It’s way outside my comfort zone – I just don’t do urban fantasy, angels and demons, seventeen year old female protagonists, or paranormal romance. And it was expensive, to boot. But the reviews were extraordinary, so I checked the free Kindle sample and yes, she can write, I get it.
The opening drew me in straight away, always a good sign. Karou is immediately interesting, with enough personality and mysterious history to be intriguing. And by the time the bizarre creatures who constitute the nearest she has to family are introduced, I was definitely hooked. What’s not to like about a protagonist who has unlimited ‘wishes’ and uses them to turn her hair blue and give people she dislikes unbearable itches? And I just love the idea of being gifted fluency in a new language every birthday. I’m adding that to my Amazon wishlist immediately. Akiva, the abnormally beautiful angel, is well drawn, and people respond to him in perfectly believable ways: did you see that? is it…? it can’t be, can it…? with no sleight of hand on the author’s part. An angel walking around in Prague is a showstopper, exactly as you would expect.
The story builds incredibly well. There are a few passages of exposition towards the end which feel a little heavy, it depends too much on Karou’s ignorance of her past (why? what’s wrong with telling people the truth?) and some of the writing is perilously close to over the top, but somehow it works. Occasionally, after a particularly emotional part, I would think: the guy’s an angel, for goodness sake, with fiery wings and smouldering eyes, it’s completely ridiculous and I’m not even tempted to laugh. And it ought to feel cliche-ridden – the orphan brought up not knowing about her heritage, the forbidden love, the portals to another world, the impossibly beautiful people, the kickass heroine – yet somehow it all works. The writing is that good. I was swept up in the story from start to finish.
Some minor criticisms: the world building is not great. The earthly cities are fine – Prague, Marrakesh and the rest feel like places the author has been to, and she evokes them well, but the ‘other’ world doesn’t quite come to life in the same way. It felt rather perfunctorily sketched, an outline drawing rather than a fully nuanced painting. And really, did it have to be so patriarchal? That was disappointing. I can’t quite believe in the chimaera, either, or a thousand year war. But I can let that pass.
The climax was brilliantly done, even if not totally unexpected. But after I stopped reading, I felt curiously flat. It was a very emotional book, yet I didn’t feel emotionally drained or desperate for the next volume. It’s a terrific story, beautifully done at every level, and yet it lacked – well, something. There was no profundity to it, no meaningful themes (beyond the trite: war is bad, angels/chimaera are people too, if you treat people badly, sooner or later they bite back) and too few moments of depth beyond the emotional storms. It’s like a well-made souffle – exquisitely light, a delicate work of art, but still mostly air. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I prefer a book with a bit more to it (more spicy or chewy or tart or meaty, say, to continue the food analogy). At bottom, it’s just a love story: a beautiful, forbidden, death-defying one, an extraordinarily well-written one, but still just a story of two people on opposing sides who fell implausibly in love at first sight. I would love to give this five stars on writing quality alone, and when I’ve read the rest of the story I may do just that, but for now this is a very good four stars.