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Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone & Chime March 2, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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These were probably two of the most talked about fantasies in YA publishing this year, along with The Scorpio Races (see earlier post.) I was familiar with Laini Taylor because of her story collection Lips Touch: Three Times and I had been following the evolution of  Daughter of Smoke and Bone for about a year via her blog. Frances Billingsley I hadn’t read before, although I quickly discovered, thanks to the Internet, that her novel The Folk-Keeper had a strong  following, and there were many people awaiting Chime. 

After a first read, my opinons were pretty clear. I loved Smoke and Bone  and I could barely finish Chime. Throughout the fall, as Chime racked up starred reviews from every possible source, and was even discussed as a potential Newbery, to say nothing of the Printz, I sulked, and then decided I had better re-read. After the second go-round, things evened out a little. I could see flaws in Smoke and Bone and I found things to enjoy in Chime, although it still wasn’t my favorite. These two books share many elements: fantastical settings, otherworldly characters, and a protagonist who goes through a journey to find self-knowledge. And since both of them are in the running for the top prize in the BATTLE OF THE KID’S BOOKS (see previous post), I thought I would do a little comparing.

ALTERNATE WORLDS: Chime is set in an alternate, vaguely steampunk-y, swampy England, where trains are new technology and supernatural creatures like the Boggy Mun, the Dark Muse and Bleeding Hearts are feared or respected. On my second read, I appreciated the setting much more; the first time I read the book it felt like the descriptions of the swamp slowed the pace of the story.

Smoke & Bone begins in our world today: the beautiful city of Prague, both familiar and magical (particularly for those of us who have always wanted to visit, but never had the chance!) is the place where Karou’s story begins. The reader gets glimpses of another universe through magic portals, the same portals also take us to Morocco and Paris, as Karou moves around the globe on her errands. Then, two-thirds of the way through the book, we go into an extended flashback and get a real look at the cities of Loramendi and Astrae. While the jump in setting was a little confusing, it did a lot to give the narrative a much needed jolt of interest at that point in the story.

BEAUTIFUL MALE LOVE INTEREST: I’ll let the views of the protagonist in each story have the first say here. Briony, from Chime: “He had golden lion’s eyes and a great mane of tawny hair…How could I bear it, Eldric living with us, this non-child, this boy-man?” Karou, from Smoke & Bone: “…kohl-rimmed eyes in a sun-browned face. Fire-colored eyes with a charge like sparks that seared a path through the air and kindled it.”

Really? Ok, so the descriptions of the love interests struck me as a little over the top, even for teenage girls. With both love stories, there were things I liked and things I hated. In Chime, I loved how Briony’s jealousy of the older girl Leanne begins as something cliche and high school, and then it turns out there is a serious and deadly reason for the dislike. On the other hand, the wrap-up and gift of a ring from Eldric felt too rapid and tidy. There isn’t a huge amount of suspense in the romance of Smoke & Bone; it’s pretty clear from the beginning that Karou and Akiva are somehow destined for each other. And I will admit, at a certain point, I started skipping love scenes because they just weren’t the most interesting part of the story. I did like the ending however, and the lack of finality in their relationship; after it feeling pre-ordained for so long, it was refreshing that they didn’t end up together. Of course, this is the first book in a trilogy, so Taylor has two more books to make that happen.

WHO AM I, REALLY?: A fundamental difference between Briony and Karou (well, aside from the fact that Briony is mostly human and Karou, as it turns out, is decidedly not) is the journey of self-knowledge that each character goes through. Briony has a very specific view of who she is and her role in the world; it terrifies her, but she clings to it desperately and her story is about how she comes to realize that her self-image is false. Karou, on the other hand, knows nothing about herself or her family, and her story is about how she learns who she is and what her role is in an alien world.

This, I think, is the main reason why I still prefer Smoke & Bone to Chime: while Briony’s self-hatred rings true as teenage emotion, it just got exhausting after awhile. There was just too much description and not enough action, especially when it was all interspersed with long rants and flashbacks to various crimes. Karou, on the other hand, is someone who I envy (why can’t I speak that many languages?) and feel sorry for at the same time. Her story pulled me in and I truly wanted to help her find the answers she was looking for. I’m excited to learn even more in the next part of her tale.

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