Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
Published by Hachette Audio on 9/27/11
Meet Karou: a seventeen year-old art student in Prague, she spends her days easing her way through life with the small wishes she carries like beads on a string and entertaining her classmates with her sketches of inhuman figures. Those sketches, however, are portraits of her family. She earns her wishes from a creature who has been the only father she remembers – the horned Chimaera named Brimstone who runs a shop where he trades in teeth (both human and animal) and wishes. The errands Karou runs on behalf of Brimstone take her through magic doors to the farthest reaches of the world, where she bargains for merchandise for the shop. It is on one of these errands that Karou is spotted by the angelic Akiva and he attempts to kill her as part of an ongoing battle between the Seraphim and the Chimaera. Wounded, Karou returns to the shop but is soon cut off from her family when the magic doors close for good. So begins Karou’s journey of discovery – of who she is, where she comes from, and how she can get back to her family.
After finishing this audiobook I felt a bit like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I picked up what I thought would be a “candy bar” of a book and ended up with a golden ticket to an amazing world and a lot more than what I was expecting. If I had to pick one word to describe this book it would be “refreshing”: in setting, use of language, and in world-building – to name just a few aspects that captured my imagination.
There’s a terrific over-arching mythology that develops describing the conflicts of two worlds, two species at war, two star-crossed lovers… but it is all made not just relatable but completely engaging by the sheer humanity of the characters. The interactions between Karou and the beastly, horned, teeth-buying creature that she thinks of as her father are resonant with the emotions any teen/parent interaction would have. Along with what seems to be a magical fated love affair, there is (in contrast to most YA paranormal/fantasy) a vignette where, far from aggrandizing the loss of virginity, the potential awkwardness of that moment and its after-effects is deftly captured with subtle strokes. (Also, if I had daughters they totally would have been given the speech about “inessential” things. I imagine it was amusing in text form but in audio it was a priceless scene.)
There is a surprising depth to the conflict between the Chimaera and the Seraphim, not because the cause of the war is complex or unique but because rarely have I seen an author take the time to move beyond a simple good vs. evil paradigm and really map out the way in which each side has constructed their own mythos about how the war started and who is the cause in addition to how the ripple effects of that war and prejudice impact the characters.
Before you get the wrong impression, let me assure you that the story is not all war, creatures, and conflict. There are some truly amusing sections of dialogue, particularly between Karou and her friend Zuzana. I was also enchanted by the mental picture the author’s words built of the city of Prague, which became a character in its own right. Even if I had been inclined to take issue with some particular plot point (which I‘m not) the writing was amazing. There were such lovely moments of description in this book and they were made richer by the fact that in addition to highlighting and adding depth to the characters and storyline, as good writing often does they also served as small moments of illumination into the character of the reader and their world.
I’ve encountered Khristine Hvam’s narration skills before (most notably with Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series) so I wasn’t too worried about her ability to provide good character differentiation and story delivery but there were several facets of her performance that worked particularly well for me in this book. I found the flow of dialogue to have a very natural feel and Zuzana’s amusing banter was delightful in both content and delivery, providing outright laugh out loud moments. Hvam also does an amazing job at voicing a single character in both youth and maturity with a pitch-perfect (in both the figurative and literal sense) tone.
In summary (in case I was in any way vague) I loved this audiobook.