The next two reviews I write will both be for young adult novels. One of them I loved, and thought it was full of great characters, exquisite tension, and great story. The other I hated, with terrible, erratic characters, nonsensical plot, and atrocious writing. Thankfully, this review is for the book I loved. It made the flaws of the second book stand out so much more keenly when I'd just finished this and could compare the two.
I've never read Laini Taylor before, but a good number of my book reviewing friends have raved about this book, so, eventually, I picked it up. I found myself completely engrossed in this world. (This may have been aided by reading it at my in-laws, often out on their deck in the early morning air, while hummingbirds came by, sounding like tiny motorcycles, fighting each other and the bees to get at the feeders. Such a setting can add much to any book.)
But the book itself is worthy of praise. It gets so many things right. The main character, Karou, is fully formed, interesting without being flawless - indeed, her flaws are often the most interesting things about her! She is beautiful, artistic, secretive to a fault, stubborn, and a bit selfish. She has grown up all over the world, but now attends (sort of) an art school in Budapest, where her notebooks full of fantastical and grotesque creatures are much admired.
Except they're not fantastical. These are the creatures who brought her up, in the middle of a mystical store that connects to many different doorways all over the world, chock full of teeth, including human. Brimstone is as close as she's known to a father, and she has no memories about her past. She has brilliant blue hair, but that's from a wish, for that is what Brimstone trades in, with hunters in return for animal teeth, graverobbers for human. Karou is repulsed by the traders but somewhat fascinated by the teeth.
The story unfolds slowly, but the pacing is just right. Taylor parcels out information at satisfying intervals, and we discover as Karou does, the new contours of her world, as stunningly beautiful and inhuman humans start to walk the earth, marking the doors to the store with burning handprints. Their shadows have wings.
There are angels and demons in this book, but Taylor has taken cosmology and made it topsy-turvy, using it as a meditation on war and the dehumanization (dedemonization?) of the enemy. The ways in which societies perpetually at war distort themselves, the ways those who are brought up in them cannon escape them.
But here's where it really shines. Many YA novels have the couple that is meant to be together. By "meant," put in "insta-love." They are kept apart, mostly, by the flimsiest of excuses, reasons that would dissipate if two characters talked honestly. This is the worst kind of drama.
Here, we have two characters who are instantly and deeply attracted to each other. (Not in love. This book realizes falling in love is trickier and takes longer.) The reasons they're attracted to each other are good. The reasons they may not ever be able to be together are stunning. And they come out of talking honestly, piercing the characters on a truly terrible dilemma, turning actions into atrocities and grief into pain. I was breathless by the full scope of what they have and had meant to each other, and what that had meant for the worlds they inhabit. At the end, while I'm hoping they might work it out eventually, I am awestruck by how truly difficult that would be.
This book doesn't shy away from difficulty. It hangs its characters out on the horns of a truly terrible dilemma. The writing style is definitely for young adults, but Taylor does not make the mistake of being patronizing. There are difficult issues raised here, genuine pain and sorrow. Young adults deserve nothing less. And they certainly deserve better than the next book I'm going to review. This may not be the one being made into a movie, but it's the one that deserves to be. Even though its very complexity of thought, if not of prose, make it unlikely.