I tried to read this a few months ago and just couldn't get into it. I am so glad I picked it up again. Everyone who says that it's fabulous? They're right. It's beyond fabulous. It blew me away.
The setting is Prague. While Prague is a beautiful city, it's not one that I think I would particularly enjoy - I visited St. Petersburg, Russia in February and found it cold and bleak. That impression was probably the thing that was off-putting for me when I first tried to read the story months ago. The main character, Karou, seemed at first to be a tough girl, rebellious and cheeky and not at all endearing. I read blue hair and tattoos and thought 'oh, here we go with the predictable kickass fantasy heroine who's going to slaughter strange creatures, lie to the regular folk (in their best interests of course) and take over some kingdom.' I expected a long adventure completely unrelated to real life. I expected all the things I find tedious in fantasy stories.
But not so, not even close! This time around Karou just seemed to be a regular art student with a strange family. Art students in general tend to be a bit odd, and Karou is no exception. She is the "daughter" of a rather daunting and fantastic creature named Brimstone. Mr. Brimstone and the others who live in his shop are chimaera - monsters who are part animal. Brimstone sends Karou on errands to gather teeth, and he grants her small wishes. Karou is like anyone with an odd family - they're all she knows so they don't seem strange at all. Monsters? Seeing them through her eyes makes us love them as she does. And Karou has a lot of questions about her heritage, all of which are unanswered by the mysterious and gruff Brimstone.
She meets and does battle with an angel, Akiva, in an alley in Marrakesh. There is a mysterious pull between them, and the story then unfolds to answer the questions of the attraction between them and Karou's origins.
Karou is actually pretty tough. I'm not sure I'd call her a badass heroine but she certainly approaches that. As the story unfolds, so does her character. Part of the charm for this book was the way the actual plot is entangled with the person of Karou. She is a mystery not only to us as readers, but to herself. We come to understand who she is as she does. As a protagonist she is complex: conflicted, curious, bold, unafraid and courageous, protective, confident. As the story progresses, a more tender side of her is revealed. She becomes more and more endearing; by the end of the book I was completely taken with her.
Akiva is a wonderful balance to Karou. He knows things, he's tortured by what he knows, and he opts for the honest rather than easy way out. We know him as a merciless, driven soldier, loyal to his cause and believing what he has been taught. But as with Karou, his personality emerges and is equally complex, with a depth that makes him completely amazing. The best thing about him is that the qualities that make him antagonistic at first never change, but simply are a basis for his entire character. The more I saw, the more I liked him. By the end, I was in love.
This book had me speculating all over the place with what would happen next - I was absolutely riveted! I never imagined the true situation revealed at the end. And what a reveal it was, with language so beautiful that I could have listened to it for days. The imagery was astounding. Some authors are just able to put language to a scene that leaves you breathless, and Laini Taylor is one of those authors.
The audio is done by Khristine Hvam and she is nothing short of fabulous. She really made the characters come alive with varying accents and voices. The emotion she gives to the scenes is spot on.
I'm putting this one up there as one of my favourites of 2013. And if it can capture a non-fantasy-fan like me, it will certainly capture fantasy and non-fantasy lovers alike. It is a spectacular start to what I hope will be a spectacular series.