Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Teen Review and Craft Breakdown

Welcome to Tuesday! Although every post here at YA Confidential is about teens, Tuesdays are my favorite days because this is when our Teen Spies come out to play!

Today, Alyssa (aka Funny Bone) and I have teamed up to bring you a look at one of the fall’s most anticipated releases, Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone. First Alyssa will give you her take on the book as a real teen ├╝ber-reader – exactly the kind you want reading your books one day -- and then I’ll take a look at the opening pages to dissect some of the craft Taylor uses to affect her readers.

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 human teeth grown 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's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.

When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

THE REVIEW

I swear this is in Alyssa's own words, you guys, although you'd be forgiven for thinking I’d nabbed it from the New York Times!
Writing this review is almost as intricately complex as the book itself.

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the kind of book that will sweep you up into its greatness, what with its delicate writing, intelligent characters and thought-out plot.

Laini Taylor’s writing style is a lot different from other YA fantasy authors. Her descriptive prose is flowery but not purpley, and her use of imagery is beautiful; her dialogue is fresh and realistic; and her plotting is creative and well-researched. Taylor made me feel like I was alongside Karou throughout her adventures with her ability to make the reader practically hear and taste and smell everything the characters did.

Although clearly Karou was the main character – 90% of the time we read from her POV – The Daughter of Smoke and Bone isn’t only about her. Akiva, the “angel,” and Brimstone, the “monster,” and every other character in between, were important and relevant and special. Honestly, I feel as if this book’s main character was the plot itself.

Yes, this book could be classified as an “angel” book, but it’s really so much more. The Daughter of Smoke and Bone has a more mature and complex feel than most of the other YA books I've read, but I with the crafty chatter between Karou and her friends, Karou and Brimstone, and Karou and Akiva, I still felt like I was reading YA. The conversations and emotions were realistic and I could relate - my friends and I give each other pet names, we joke around, and we get hurt - and I thought that Taylor touched on teen life well. I can see all of my fantasy-loving friends reading this, too. It's humorous and detailed and as realistic as a fantasy can get.

The only things about The Daughter of Smoke and Bone that irked me was the pacing and confusion that went on in the middle of the book. The beginning started strong, but as I made my way to the middle of the story, too much information was provided without explanation, and at times I just felt like I was trudging through too much added and unneeded writing. Such made the middle difficult to keep with and fully enjoy.

But when the sequel comes out, I know I’ll be first in line. The climax and cliffhanger Taylor left me with had me pulling out my hair in a frenzy. Lips Touch, Three Times is on the top of my to-buy list because Taylor caught my attention with The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and I can’t wait to read more of her stunning talent. 
You can check out Alyssa’s full review of The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, along with many more books, on her blog.

THE CRAFT

Like Alyssa, one of the first things I was struck by when reading The Daughter of Smoke and Bone was the beauty of Taylor’s language and, more importantly, how vividly she draws her settings and characters. For instance, Taylor manages to evoke Prague (one of my favorite cities in the world!) in a very concrete way for readers who most likely have no familiarity with it.
 
She does this using a technique that serves her well throughout the book in a variety of ways: contrast. She puts disparate things up against each other constantly, but instead of creating confusion, it actually brings about clarity, because your mind is forced to define the differences.

This idea is summed up in a sentence from early on page one:
On the riverfront thoroughfare, trams and buses roared past, grounding the day in the twenty-first century, but on the quieter lanes, the wintry peace might have hailed from another century.
Prague is a city of contradictions and surprises, and Taylor conjures that for you in her writing. Without the modernity of the trams and buses, you wouldn’t be able to see the wintry peace of a bygone century in your mind as easily, and vice versa.

In addition, Taylor she chooses to highlight very specific and unexpected details in her descriptions. In effect, she’s using contrast again, putting the oddness of her subject up against the normality you expect.

Take Karou, the protagonist. Taylor’s first physical description of Karou is:
An artist’s portfolio was slung over her shoulder, and her hair – loose, long, and peacock blue – was gathering a lace of snowflakes.
That peacock blue comes out of nowhere and jars slightly, but it gives you a more immediate and vivid picture of Karou and the kind of girl she is than most books get across in ten times the words because of the strangeness and specificity of the detail. A blue-haired girl in an old world city forces you to think outside of your normal box and really picture Karou in your mind, really think about who she is instead of just coasting through the story. The lace of snowflakes, such a soft and romantic image, on top of the punky blue hair, magnifies the effect.

By giving us one highly-unique and telling detail in her description, Taylor has already told us a lot about the kind of character Karou is and the kind of story we’re in for.

Karou’s blue hair pulls us up short because we’re expecting something else, a contrast that challenges your assumptions and makes you relate more intimately with the text from the beginning. Taylor uses this kind of contrast – of what you expect with what she intends – in her plot as well as description.

For instance, on page two, Karou is attacked.
A snarl, rushing footfall, and she was seized from behind, pulled hard against a man’s broad chest as hands yanked her scarf askew and she felt teeth – teeth – against her neck.
The reader thinks they know exactly where they stand. In a dark alley in Eastern Europe, a girl is grabbed by a man who bites her, so he’s obviously a vampire and she’ll fall in love with him, sparkle sparkle, blah blah blah.

But Taylor takes your expectations and uses them against you, upending the story and the hold you think you have on it.
Nibbling.

Her attacker was nibbling her.

Annoyed, she tried to shake him off without spilling her coffee.
Taylor undercuts our expectations, which works to great comedic effect (Joss Whedon being the master at this particular strategy) and also lets us know that this is a fresh approach to an angel and demon story where you can’t coast as a reader. You have to engage.

In two pages, using this one technique of contrast in a few different ways, Taylor manages to paint a vivid picture of her setting and protagonist, tell us something about the kind of character Karou is going to be, and make us sit up and realize this isn’t going to be a typical book, so we’d better pay attention.

Not bad, right? 

Does The Daughter of Smoke and Bone sound like something you'd like to read? If so, just leave Alyssa and me a comment, and you'll automatically be entered to win your own copy!

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