When I heard about this book for the first time, it was not from all the hype it has apparently received from readers of the YA genre. I was guided to it by a whimsical YA-novel specialist who worked at my (then) local independent bookstore. I told her that I was in my twenties but still loved reading YA, yet found some of the options to be way too youthful, in terms of oversimplified writing, plot devices that made me want to roll my eyes, and the overall quality of an adult author trying to write what they imagine teenagers talk and act like.
This book outperformed pretty much every YA fictional novel I have ever read in terms of sophistication and readability. Taylor’s writing is more sophisticated than I’ve found a lot of contemporary adult fiction to be, and it did not feel at all like the author was “talking down” to the audience for being a younger audience. Her descriptions are beautiful, if sometimes a bit excessive and overdone. The world she builds is beautiful, sinister, unsettling, and magical all at the same time, and Prague is such a different location for a YA book to be set in.
Now the fantasy aspect of the book had my inner religious studies major jumping up and down for joy and screaming praise from the rooftops. Mythology! Creationism! Paganism molded with Western monotheism! The beginning of the book was like soup for the fantasy-lover’s soul. Taylor’s take on the angels-and-demons genre (which, if you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m a sucker for) is completely, and I mean COMPLETELY, unique. She turns the heaven-hell dichotomy on it’s head, and introduces races of angels and chimera in a centuries long war that has become so brutal and bloodied it has become a way of life, rather than a means to an end, to peace. There’s a fabulous interplay of religion and magic, and the surrounding environments that Taylor sets these multiple worlds in, whether a gritty sun-soaked market in North Africa, a secret restaurant that has coffins for tables in the winter of Prague, or the creepy comfort of Brimstone’s shop where teeth are traded for wishes at an unbelievable cost, I was literally floating from the giddiness of encountering so much originality, that truly made me feel like I was there.
As far as characters go, Taylor mostly hits the nail on the head. The protagonist, Karou, is supposed to be a whimsical, intelligent, curious, humbly talented late teenaged art student in Prague, which turns out to be EXACTLY WHAT SHE FEELS LIKE TO THE READER. (As in, we are not fooled into thinking some nitwit teenage girl is a plausible heroine like in so many other novels). Even though most of the novel follows Karou (in one form or another) she still retains an aura of mystery even to the reader, like she’s clever and not laying all of her emotional cards out onto the table within the first three chapters of the book. Taylor similarly writes the typical sassy-best-friend in a refreshing fashion, one who is not annoying or predictable, and who manages to gather her bearings quickly and go along with her best-friend’s crazy supernatural world with amazing grace (Zuzanna may have easily been my favorite character in the book, and her broken marionette performance may have been my favorite scene, AND it wasn’t even essential to the plot). Brimstone, Issa, even Thiago…all the characters had such a presence that you felt such a connection and realism to them.
And then there’s the love story. Although it’s part in the plot became much more clear and essential later in the book, I personally was not impressed by it. It wasn’t the reason I would pick up this book again, you know? It was just something I had to go along with to enjoy the rest of the amazing Taylor created. I was a little disappointed in many other reviews I read which mainly consist of five stars and a bunch of drooling over Akiva, AKA sexy-angel-warrior-tortured-soul-dude and the love interest. His character just seemed really flat, even when he was more fully developed later on in the book. And while I did enjoy learning about his past with Madrigal, he just really never captivated me in the way that all of the other characters, even the villians, did. If anything, he seemed to be the character that was most like a carbon-copy from other YA books. In my (undoubtedly unpopular) opinion, I wish this book hadn’t been a love story, because the mythology and action and characters are so intricately interwoven that I feel like the book could’ve held up on it’s on without having to place a romance in the middle of the plot to connect everything. I would’ve loved to see Karou, and Madrigal, have their own journeys of self-discovery not based on a great love, because honestly this book was so strong and so compelling that it didn’t really need it.
So I suppose I’m taking one star off for the (in my opinion) unnecessary romance, and the fact that I started losing interest in the halfway point of the book (probably because it was focused on Karou and Akiva mooning over each other). It’s dynamic beginning and ending, as well as it’s originality in a genre often riddled with clichés, have me thanking that kind lady in the bookstore for placing this in my hands over anything else I may have picked that day.
Recommended for those who are searching for more out of your next YA fantasy read.