This isn’t going to be a straight up criticism of Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. I enjoyed it. I just finished reading the second book in the trilogy, and I intend to read the third book once I get my hands on it. It’s not the most compelling series I’ve ever read, but I still liked it, and I thought the worldbuilding and magic system were pretty cool. However, I did have one considerable quibble with the first book (which I have had with other media over the years): I thought I was reading one thing for the first half or so, and then it changed into a completely different story. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the story it turned into, but the setup was really unusual and way more up my alley.
Blue haired art student living in Prague has to collect teeth for her mysterious adoptive father figure, a monster who deals in wishes? What a cool concept. And I would have been so, so happy for it to remain contained to that little world of the single shop, with enough mysteries of its own, but of course it turned into a divine war spanning generations. Again, I’m not unhappy about that outcome – I’m all about rebellions and the futility of war and characters struggling to know what the right course of action actually is. I lap that right up. I just also want the small-scale quirky wish shop story I was emotionally invested in.
I’ll be honest, the cosmic romance kind of lost me. I just… don’t care about people choosing their romance over anything else. I feel like it happens really often in YA fantasy, and I find it so completely unrelatable I just kind of sigh and trudge through. The revolutionary, peace-seeking aspect of the relationship between Akiva and Madrigal/Karou, however, I was super into. Bring down that empire! Establish that peace! Stop blindly killing each other for no good reason! I just found it hard to invest in these worlds that were barely relevant beforehand. The grand scale of the war is devastating, of course, but the personal grief over the deaths of Brimstone and the rest of Karou’s found family was much more of a blow.
This isn’t a problem that Daughter of Smoke and Bone faces alone, either – instead of investing in the heavy repercussions of character-driven conflict, a lot of series feel the need to build upon the previous events by ramping up the plot, but you can only go so far. Of course you don’t want to follow up the apocalypse with the tension of an uninvited guest turning up to a garden party, but sudden escalation without a satisfying lead-up can be extremely jarring. And there’s a certain point where you just have to stop (a point that Supernatural, for example, passed long ago. I know it’s either finished or finishing soon – I don’t follow it that closely – but that show needed to be wrapped up at least five seasons ago). Sometimes smaller scale is a good thing. In terms of plot, particularly, this doesn’t mean a lack of quality. I do love grand stories too, as evidenced by my love for epic fantasy, but I’ve read pared-back books that focus instead on characters that I have enjoyed just as much. Simplicity can be just as good as complexity. I wish that authors would think about the integrity of the story and their characters before they decided to increase the stakes in ways that feel cheap and insincere. I don’t think that was the case in Daughter of Smoke and Bone – I think that Taylor treats her characters with a great deal of heart, and gives them space to develop – but I’ve definitely experienced a lot of media that sacrifices character-driven tension for the plot. However, the plot isn’t going to mean anything if there is no audience investment in the characters. I wouldn’t have enjoyed the escalated scale of events in Daughter of Smoke and Bone if there hadn’t been well-written characters at the centre of everything – although the scale of the story was grand, the feelings of the individuals were still prioritised. I was disappointed by some of the events in the story, but I still overall enjoyed it, which shows Taylor’s strength as a writer, and the importance of characters driving even epic plots.