“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil held a wishbone between them. And its snap split the world in two,” writes Laini Taylor in “Days of Blood and Starlight.” The line is only one in a handful of “once upon a time” quotes from the series, but it marks the beginning of the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” trilogy.
With high stakes, forbidden love and worlds reminiscent of fairytales mixed with ancient mythology, Taylor’s stories open with wonder and hold their promises throughout as they create luxurious realms of magic and fantasy, worlds so vivid that the reader can virtually feel each page adorned with painstaking brushstrokes.
Although Taylor’s popularity has ballooned in the last several years, her writing roots go back much further. She graduated from Berkeley in 1994 with a bachelor of arts in English and finished three semesters at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she studied illustration. Her love of visual arts clearly and vibrantly permeates her works.
Her two most well-known projects are “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” trilogy and “Strange, The Dreamer” duology. Both are worlds filled with creatures of Taylor’s own design, brimming with descriptions so graphic they ultimately do what every fantasy writer aspires to do: place you, the reader, in the world of the writer’s imaginings.
“Daughter of Smoke and Bone” follows Karou, a 17-year-old art student living in Prague who Taylor describes best: “She moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.” On the outside, besides having hair that naturally grows electric blue, she seems like a normal but extensively creative soul.
Yet, the home she comes back to everyday is occupied by her family of monsters she has in her sketchbooks, headed by the so-called Wishmonger, Brimstone. He and the other “chimaeras” are the only family she has ever known (or can at least remember).
Part of her life brimming and brewing with monsters is finding teeth around the world and bringing them back to Brimstone — literal teeth. And, like Brimstone, Karou also has the ability to grant wishes. Albeit much smaller, but still, wishes.
One day, black hand prints start to appear on doors all over the world. The handprints begin opening portals to Brimstone’s world, and Karou discovers that the prints have actually been left by angels. Remember the opening of the article?
To summarize the rest quickly (and without giving too much away), Akiva, one of the angels, becomes fixated on Karou and turns out to be a revenant, a reanimated soul in a body that the Wishmonger created out of magic stored in the collected teeth. Madrigal, Karou’s previous identity, was mutually in love with Akiva, but as Seraphim and Chimaera have been at war for centuries, the romance did not end well.
As you can imagine, forbidden love draws in a young adult audience. However, with layer upon layer of world building and storyline, much like a precisely planned painting, the novel gives readers more than they expected.
If you thought that “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” sounded wondrously original, Taylor’s “Strange, the Dreamer” only solidifies her striking writing voice.
Enter Lazlo Strange and his story in which “the dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around.” His parents died 20 years ago, and Strange has been living in a monastery with monks ever since. One day, an older monk tells Strange of a city filled with knowledge and wonders across the Elmuthaleth desert, but when Strange turns 5, the name of the city is stolen from his mind.
Strange feels that the source of its disappearance is magic tied to the Unseen city, and it becomes his life mission to study every aspect of the lost legend. Growing up, it was clear he had a preternatural obsession with stories, so it is no surprise that the one story nobody fully understands draws his attention for most of his life.
Strange ends up joining a caravan heading to Weep (the Unseen city). The caravan’s sole purpose is to gather individuals to help solve the unnamed plague of the city. Until they arrive, the leaders of the party say absolutely nothing.
Upon approaching the city, Strange sees the obvious problem (even though he feels more wonder than fear): a large blue citadel floats over the city. In the air.
For over 200 years, the entity had lived over the city, and until 15 years prior to the caravan’s creation, its occupants plagued the city. Six beings deemed gods would steal women from the town. When returned, these women remembered nothing and visibly had signs of having given birth.
One day, the goddess Isolde took Eril-Fane into the citadel as a plaything. (Did I mention he is the leader of the caravan?) He was taken days after being married, and after three years his wife was taken into the citadel. Her screams set off the “Godslayer,” and resulted in the slaughter of the gods and their “godspawn.”
Fifteen years have come and gone, and the citadel remains. Now, the members of Weep wish to have the citadel removed so that the town may heal, but unbeknownst to them, five of the children survived the “Carnage” and lived.
In walks Sarai, the “Muse of Nightmares,” a godspawn with blue skin (like them all) and untamable cinnamon hair, a character able to visit and manipulate the minds of beings through a psychic bond created through moths that escape her mouth every night.
View this post on Instagram
17 days till MUSE OF NIGHTMARES! Look at this gorgeous Sarai that my super talented husband @jimdibartolo painted for me last year ❤❤❤ I love her! We left Sarai and Lazlo in quite a spot at the end of STRANGE THE DREAMER, huh? I want to tell you: I wasn't planning that. This sounds a little crazy to admit, but almost the whole time I was writing Strange, from the moment I wrote that prologue (like, the 20th or 50th opening I tried!) I…thought that [the thing that happens] happened to *someone else*. It wasn't until I got to the final stretch that I knew who it was, and when the realization hit…wow. It was one of those writing moments I'll never forget. I was pretty exhausted, way over deadline, demoralized, trying SO HARD to get to the finish line, and all of a sudden I was WIDE AWAKE. Horrified but also captivated. I kept thinking: I can't. I could never. But I knew I had to and would. I was racing ahead in my mind, trying to grasp what it would mean for the story. As you can imagine, Muse of Nightmares would have been a hugely different book if that late thunder clap hadn't hit me. I don't know what it would be, honestly. It doesn't matter. I'd found the right ending. I knew because I was *electrified*, renewed. I couldn't back away. In a lot of ways it's like the ending of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Like, a brick dropped on your head (or heart) just before the curtain falls. Welp. It's almost time to find out what happens next! Thank you for joining me for the ride! ❤ #museofnightmares
Sound like a lot? Well, to be honest, it is. I promise, however, the world-building feels so natural and believable because of Taylor’s ability to paint stunning images.
If you love young adult fiction, I urge you to read her books, as her storytelling technique surpasses basic tropes of YA fiction that can feel stale and predictable, even though she is working with the ideal of “forbidden loves.”
Taylor is indeed asking more of her readers in processing these intimately created stories, but it is undeniably worth the read. Her stories manage to convince you to dream along with her, and in her own words, “Dream up something wild and improbable … Something beautiful and full of monsters,” because, as she writes, “All the best stories are.”