This review contains some rather significant discussions of plot points in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, so if you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to wait; I will say that I wouldn’t be talking about it if I didn’t think it was worth reading, so you can rest assured that I think you might enjoy it. If, that is, you’re a fan of young adult fantasy. If you’re not, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it very much, although you’re welcome to give it a try anyway—why not branch outside your genre comfort zone?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone revolves around Karou, an art student in Prague who leads a double life. When she’s not making art, she’s running errands for Brimstone, a member of a monstrous race called the chimaera. They have bodies composed of a mix of human and animal parts, like tiger heads on men’s bodies, and they’re the only family Karou knows, because she was raised among them. Brimstone collects teeth for a purpose that becomes apparent in the later half of the book, and Karou is his contact with the human world. She meets with sources and delivers the results to his tiny shop, which has a magical door that can open out into any number of portals around the world.
As a starting premise, this is pretty awesome. But then things start to get sticky when angels show up, determined to put an end to Brimstone’s business by closing the portals and isolating him from the human world. Desperate to reunite with her chimaera family, Karou sets out to find a way back in, but she falls in love with an angel and discovers her true identity.
This is, I confess, where my interest as a reader became significantly less. I loved the underlying concept of the book and wasn’t very interested in the romance; and for a change, I’d like a heroine who isn’t the secret key upon which the whole world revolves, the person who will change everything, the person totally reframing how people live. I’d love to have a heroine who just wants to find her family and goes about it in the best way she can. And, of course, the endless descriptions of Karou and her love interest as ‘perfect’ and ‘beautiful’ wore thin on me quickly. I like people who are ugly and dark and twisted.
However, these descriptions played into a larger plot element that actually really started to intrigue me when I sat down to discuss it with people. In the mythology of the book, the chimaera are capable of resurrection; Brimstone can build new bodies for their souls and coax them back to life after death. This is the secret of their military success in the war against the angels, because they can keep regenerating soldiers over and over again. Each body is custom made and may mimic the body a chimaera had in life, or not.
Karou is not a true human, we learn: She’s a resurrected chimaera.
In chimaera society, there’s an interesting social stratification based on physical appearance. Those with more animal parts, particularly heads and faces, are said to be of beast aspect. Those with more human parts, particularly human faces, are of ‘high human aspect.’ There isn’t much mixing between the two, except at social events with more license to relax the normal restrictions of society. Members of chimaera society use their effective racial differences against each other, creating a tiered social system where the more human you look, the more important, powerful, and respected you are. And the more beautiful people consider you.
Karou’s earlier incarnation, Madrigal, was of high human aspect, and this becomes important in the storyline. She’s used to being considered beautiful, and she has a certain amount of social privilege because of her human looks. This contrasts with her foster sister and friend, Chiro, who has the face of a jackal.
A face Madrigal gave her when she was died and resurrected, giving Madrigal a chance to make her a new body. Thinking about the essence of her friend, Madrigal gave her a new body very similar to her old one, adding precious gems for strength, speed, and acuity. She gave Chiro exactly what she thought she wanted, but what Chiro really desired was to be brought back in a high human aspect, and she holds it against Madrigal. This grudge turns deadly when Madrigal has a dangerous secret.
One read on this narrative is that Chiro is narrowminded and jealous and selfish, and sabotages her friend solely because she is beautiful and attracts the attention of leading members of society. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Chiro’s actions speak to something deeper as well, the position of a person of marginalised status who is frustrated not just with her lot in life, but with the fact that people in positions of privilege don’t recognise it at all. Chiro is depicted in the story as angry and bitter and small and weak, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair to her character; what happens is a result of social stratification and artificial divides, not because of inherent flaws on Chiro’s part.
I may be reading too much into the text, but this is my role, as a reader, to delve into a text, explore it, and come away with a reading slightly different than that the author may have intended. I may also be alone in this reading; many critical discussions of the text I’ve encountered look at Chiro’s actions purely as jealousy and selfishness over Madrigal’s beauty and perfection.
What if it’s both? What if Chiro is jealous and small, but she’s been made that way by the society she lives in, which teaches her that she is ugly because of how she looks, while Madrigal is beautiful for having a high human aspect?