You probably have a list of books that you were never quite the same after reading; I know I do. Stories that were just what you needed at a specific point in your life, novels that, had you read them at another time, you would have liked well enough but that would not have had that same kind of absolute, lifelong resonance. I liked Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods and Monsters well enough. I liked her whole Daughter of Smoke and Bone series a lot, actually. But what I really wanted, reading it, was to send it—as if in some kind of reverse time capsule—to my adolescent self, knowing that she would find it formative and essential instead of just really cool.
Because the book is more than cool. In a world where the plotlines of adolescent heroines are billed as epic but too-often reduced to which-boy-will-she-pick, Laini Taylor has accomplished the extraordinary: a lush, addictive, fantastical narrative that prioritizes its characters’ response to political and social turmoil over their romantic entanglements.
It’s an important message, yes, but Taylor doesn’t preach. Understanding comes organically, via the exploits of blue-haired Karou, a young artist who deals in wishes and human teeth. Karou, for those unitiated to the series, is a demon, or chimera, resurrected in a human body and caught up in an eons-old, otherworldly war with angels who are far less angelic than they appear; her tentative ally and requisite star-crossed lover, Akiva, is the leader of a rebellious angelic faction. The deck is delightfully stacked against the pair. They’re up against the blood-soaked enmity of their peoples and the many ways they’ve wounded each other over the course of previous lifetimes. They’re also (due to their hands’ ritual markings) literally unable to touch one another without inflicting emotional or physical pain, an inventive device that Taylor leverages for maximum (PG) sexual tension.
But there’s more to the couple than longing looks, and part of the reason the Karou-Akiva pairing works so well is that it actually works, a depressingly uncommon feature in fantasy-tinged romance. When Akiva fears he has a romantic rival and Karou worries he is misinterpreting the nature of a new alliance, Taylor has the pair communicate frankly, rather than agonizing for hundreds of pages and allowing the will-they-or-won’t-they tension stand in for plot. While unquestionably passionate, the lovers are refreshingly pragmatic against their own epic backdrop, treating their relationship (in what becomes a recurring, witty euphemism) as “a piece of cake set aside for later” as they fight for a “forever [that won’t] be paradise, but a war-ravaged world with much to learn and unlearn…and cake…around the edges.”
The icing on that cake—and another essential something I’d have loved my adolescent self to pick up on—is that Akiva and Karou’s pre-existing friendships and loyalties continue to matter, no matter the state of their turbulent relationship. The series is well-populated with a rich, complex cast of secondary characters, including Eliza Jones, a scientist with deeply repressed memories; Karou’s human friends, puppeteer Zuzanna and violinist Mik (both of whom, for the record, you’d want on your side in an apocalyptic scenario); Akiva’s warrior sister Liraz (who, for the record, you would not like to meet in a dark alley alone). This split focus is a risk, particularly with a fan base heavily invested Karou and Akiva’s relationship, but one that adds nuance and raises the stakes. With a full roster of fleshed-out characters for her readers to get swept up in, the romance, even when it takes center stage, is only one plot of many.
And then there’s the writing itself, which is peppered with gorgeous epiphanies (“…happiness wasn’t a mystical place to be reached or won…but something to carry doggedly with you through everything, as humble and ordinary as your gear and supplies”), witty quips (“My unprovable belief is better than your unprovable belief. Suck it.”), and startling images (fruit that may or may not be transubstantiated prisoners of war). Above all, I’d have liked to expose my younger self to wordplay like that, which—even without the empowering takeaway—builds an absorbing world with which I’d have completely fallen in love.