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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

The Thin Line between Love and Criticism

SmokeandBone 198x300 The Thin Line between Love and CriticismOh, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, how I love thee.

And how it wounds me that I must now talk about all the ways in which you are not a Printz contender after all (says I, and won’t I be eating crow, with some pleasure, if the actual committee comes to entirely the opposite conclusion about that).

There are three ways it can go with analyzing books for a quality-based award. I mean, really, there are dozens of ways. But once you’ve got it down to a long list (say, 30-60 titles from the thousands published in the year), I see the process going one of three ways.

Way 1: You love the book. You analyze the book. By and large the book holds up and moves to the short list (of, say, 5-10 titles, cause it’s nice to have an overage of top picks when you are on a committee as it’s unlikely that your personal top five will actually be the final five). This is the best way: the book is worth close scrutiny and the love you bear for it means that rereading and close reading feel like a joy, not a chore.

Way 2: You hate the book. You analyze the book. The book turns out to be absolutely brilliant from a literary perspective (or at least worthy of its nomination, which is what that long list I mentioned above correlates to) and moves to the short list of 5-10 titles. Hopefully, you’ll learn to love the book for its accomplishments because rereading a book you kind of hate (no matter how objectively great it is) is indeed a chore, but in the end you may never find yourself actually enjoying the reading even though the book really is very accomplished. For me, this is most often the case with books with unlikable protagonists–I recognize the art in crafting them, but goshdarnit they are miserable people and spending time with them is painful. But liking a book is not an item on the criteria, so if you are really being a good committee member, you say, “AG! I hate this book!” and then you move on to actual, substantive, meaningful, objective dialogue.

Way 3: You love the book. You analyze the book. And although you still love it/recommend it all over the place/absolutely support any starred reviews, etc., you sadly recognize that there are flaws. Flaws that mean you can’t really justify keeping the book on your short list. To me, this is the worst of the three ways. Way 2 isn’t a walk in the park, but sometimes analysis is actually easier with a book that doesn’t grab you. Also, there’s that sense of doing it for the award: you read this book you don’t love in service of something greater than you. But when you love a book but ultimately can’t support it, it just generally blows.

Needless to say, after two read-throughs, Way 3 is where I’ve landed with Daughter.

It is a great read: it draws readers in, and has lots of rich language (those descriptions of Prague! Makes me want to go there, although my own Prague experience was not that magical haunted city that Karou knows). The New York Times list of notable teen (they call it children’s, though, so cue daily frustration) books just cited it as being, well, notable, and their review back in October called the book a “breath-catching romantic fantasy about destiny, hope and the search for one’s true self.”

This is true, but it’s also one of the places where things didn’t hold up as much as I had hoped. On the first read, I did have a brief eyeroll moment when (SPOILER ALERT! It’s a spoileriffic read from here on out, so avert your eyes if you haven’t read the book yet, and don’t taint your reading experience with my critique and insanely close analysis) Akiva is revealed to be Karou’s true love. It felt pat, and it’s a destined love, not a growing love. This is a huge trope in YA romances (especially paranormal ones) and it takes away some depth. In a commercial, ephemeral effort, it’s exactly what the reader wants, but in a book as richly evoked and emotionally packed as Daughter, it stands out as being less than the rest of the text. Even when the reader gets to see Madrigal’s experiences firsthand (in a 10-chapter flashback that derails the forward momentum of the novel), it’s clear that the basis of their connection is one moment in the mist; they grow into a more meaningful relationship based on a shared dream, but the genesis is based in… nothing? Destiny?

There was also some heavy handed foreshadowing: over and over, the reader is told that Karou feels like something is missing, that there was “another life she was meant to be living.” Why the telling, when there is showing alongside that is so much more effective? Karou’s life between worlds makes this sensation clear in subtle ways: she is always looking for balance, and her position between the real-life of Prague and the other-life of Brimstone’s shop and the errands she runs for him convey that something does not add up. Her failed romance with Kaz also illustrates how she looks for love in all the wrong places. Overt, repeated references to feeling empty or wanting love seem redundant at best in the face of the more evocative passages that have brought these motifs of loneliness and longing to the fore.

Speaking of evocative images, on the plus side, there is a rich and complex mythology here, and lots of excellent dialogue (particularly between Karou and Zuzana, who are snarky and irreverent and bawdy and real; the angels and chimera sometimes shade into woodenness, and Akiva has some awful clichéd moments: “…he had lived so long with the deadness that he believed pity and mercy extinguished in him.”). I can close my eyes and see Brimstone’s shop, creepy and mysterious and yet inviting and warm, and although the 10-chapter flashback/infodump I mentioned above is not seamless in its execution, the layers of past and present and the endless ugly futility of the angel-chimera war is all good stuff.

But—and ultimately, I think this is the clincher—it’s good stuff that goes nowhere. Review after review concludes with a reference to what a great series opener this is: “Rarely…does a series kick off so deliciously;” “…the conclusion is a beckoning door to the next volume.”

Okay, “nowhere” is an overstatement. But it doesn’t go to the end, because the story doesn’t end on the last page.

Here’s the thing: the destined love and the tendency to tell us about Karou’s loneliness? Depending on what happens next, after this volume, those might turn out to be assets. If Karou and Akiva live happily ever after, then I’m going to continue to see the destiny stuff as a bit too easy. But if one of them dies, or they have to stay* apart to ensure their dream of a peaceful future? Then suddenly it’s a really rich turn about of the romantic fantasy trope, and the clichéd elements are part of the build up and not even remotely a flaw. If Karou ends up living out her life as a human, still missing Eretz, then the fact that for 17 years her human life was underscored by a longing for some undefinable, unknown other becomes a poignant piece of foreshadowing of a longer narrative thread, rather than a belabored foreshadowing of the more immediate narrative. And that’s just two possibilities; I firmly believe Laini Taylor has more tricks up her sleeve, given her inventiveness and skill.

But until the books are done, we can’t know if what I am calling flaws are actually flaws, or if they are part of the set up for more surprises, just as Karou’s heartbreak over Kaz is just set up for true love and true anguish (and how fitting that Kaz likes to hide in dark corners and ambush her, like a pale shadow of the threat actually posed by Akiva). And until we know what is coming, I can only assess what is here based on what is here, which is half, or less, of a story. Taken only on its own, the flaws and the lack of any ending make this not destined to wear the Printz gold, although the inventiveness and appeal and way it leaves readers burning for book 2 make it absolutely a best book of the year.

I know I already said we need an award for short fiction, but I’ve also long thought that we need some kind of formal recommendation or commendation for series fiction that says this is awesome, brilliant, amazing stuff, and the whole is even more than the sum of the parts, and no one volume deserves recognition because unless you read the whole enchilada you aren’t experiencing the brilliance.

Until that day, books like Daughter get short shrift for awards even if they really are at the top of the year’s heap, warts and all.

(*edited “be” to “stay” after initial posting, because I was being unfair to the ending with the initial, careless verb choice!

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Aagh! I haven’t finished reading it, so I have to stop at SPOILER ALERT. Darn, darn, darn!

    As my teens say, “burb” (be right back).

  2. Sigh. I was absolutely certain this would be a Printz contender, except that I agree with what you wrote so clearly. I did love it, though.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I, on the other hand, don’t agree with you at all, Karyn. I do agree that it is unlikely to win the gold, but only because fantasy proper has never won the gold, although not for want of quality: TENDER MORSELS, NATION, DREAMQUAKE, and THE ROPEMAKER are among the very best in the canon–better than many of the winners. Yes, the cliffhanger ending will also be challenging, but if the committee can recognize Elizabeth Knox and M.T. Anderson then I hold out hope. The unresolved ending which really bothered you didn’t bother me in the least, especially because Taylor answered most of the questions she raised for the readers. It reminded me of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, so many questions answered, but a couple big tantalizing ones left, not the least of which is: What happens next!

    It’s interesting that you warmed up to Briony’s whining, but not Karou’s whining. Aren’t they essentially the same thing? And the 10 chapter flashback? Glorious. Her plotting blows every other book in the field out of the water. Hands down.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m not really sure what Jonathan means about Karou’s whining – am I missing something that you said Karyn? – I thought Karyn meant that she disliked *Taylor’s* whining – that is, her tell-not-show way of saying that something was missing for Karou.

    Anyway, back to the book – I definitely agree that the love story was a huge problem. Honestly, I don’t even see the potential in the future books that you mention. It just seemed cheap.

    I’m also interested by Jonathan’s comment about plotting, because I thought that was another flaw with the book. The plot in the abstract was fascinating and well created, but the way it was presented–the structuring of the novel–was somewhat awkward, including the foreshadowing you mentioned and the strange choice she made to just chunk the whole Madrigal story in right at the end with nothing really left of the main story to follow it.

    BUT, BUT, BUT – this book has really stuck with me. The sentence-level writing was tremendous. The characters of Karou, Zuzana, Brimstone, and ? (the guy who has the fallen angel on his shoulder, what was his name?) were incredible. And actually I thought that the love story could be seen as sufficiently minor to the main plot for the pat-ness of it not to matter. We’ll see.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Mark, I would love it if the love story turned out to be minor when the whole thing is done, but page count wise it’s a huge amount of territory, and a lot of emotional energy, as well as the primary device to move the plot in the second half of the book and in the flashback/Eretz sections. The one saving grace is that it’s all messed up at the end, but until I know whether that’s for real or just Romeo and Juliet, I’m hesitant to give props since the overall impression (message?) is more about the love being all-consuming and destined.

      Also, I agree that some sentence level writing is great, but the Karou-Akiva stuff feels a bit adolescent girl to me: “they couldn’t not touch” and “the solidity of him beside her now in all its rightness” — it’s not that the prose isn’t nicely written, but it’s sort of trite, isn’t it, for a love that transcends time and space and species. (And don’t let me get started about the vague ick factor before the breaking of the wishbone, when we have a 50-year-old soldier and a 17-year-old girl, which is so loaded with issues, even if he does look young and literally angelic. If I go there I start to get into a meta conversation which isn’t entirely fair to the book as a book.) And going back to the language, it doesn’t always soar when Akiva is at the center of things, which is ironic given that he himself is rather given to soaring about.

  5. Karyn Silverman says:

    Jonathan, as always, you have provided great context.

    I’m going to take issue with some of your points, though. Well, sort of issue.

    I think serial fantasy fares worse than standalone, so I stand by my belief that the series will keep Daughter off the list altogether. Look at Nation indeed, and note that Pratchett got no YA lovin’ until he stepped away from the Discworld. I was on the committee that recognized Nation and I do think it’s brilliant, but is it the most brilliant Pratchett has written? I don’t think so. I do think that the alternate history fantasy without any serial trappings is easier for a committee to recognize than alternate world fantasy and some trappings, in the background, of the series. Genre does indeed fare badly, and aside from Ropemaker, your examples are never straight up fantasy– Dreamquake and Nation share some real world grounding (so in that regard, Daughter might be in better shape, actually, since I’d argue it’s paranormal in many ways rather than pure fantasy), while Tender Morsels is a fairy tale retelling. Also worth noting that Tender Morsels and Nation and Octavian Nothing 2 were the same year, so maybe we were also an outlier year and we should throw all three of those out when we discuss committee trends?

    And back to Dreamquake, I think that it benefited from being part 2; we could see how all the pieces fell together (which they did brilliantly) in a way we couldn’t see in the first. This is, to my mind, not so unlike recognizing a series as a whole, or, as Sarah says, it’s the Oscar given to Return of the King when really we all knew it was for the trilogy.

    Finally, I don’t think Karou is whiny at all! It was the omniscient narrative voice telling us over and over that I thought was belabored. In case we didn’t get it from Karou’s actions, or dialogue, or thoughts. If it had been actually in Karou’s voice (rather than the narrative third person from a Karou-shaped perspective), I think it might have felt less heavy: I will buy that a 17-year-old girl would harp on feeling lonely and incomplete (although Karou is a bit too mature and awesome due to her circumstances to do so without some humor), but that we hear it over and over not directly from her– that’s what struck me as too much (but again, not whiny!).

    I have mixed feelings about the flashback and the plotting. I do think the pacing is a little off, and I felt this both on the first read as well– just as one section, say, Prague and the double life and the possible threat gets going, boom, three months later and Karou has become kickass superKarou, and then boom, that section jumps to the big flashback, and then boom, the ending which is really just the start of something more.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, maybe whiny was the wrong word, buy whatever Taylor allegedly did wrong with that characterization, I didn’t see it. Nor did I have a problem with the romance, but then I don’t read all those supernatural romances. I can only compare them to the ones in CHIME and SCORPIO RACES and say that I found it better. I didn’t have a problem with pacing or plotting, and I did for both CHIME and SCORPIO RACES. I should note that I am still mired in the latter book, so maybe my opinion will change. Maybe I’ll carve some time out of my schedule–ha!–to reread DAUGHTER, but for now, it’s still my frontrunner, an unlikely frontrunner perhaps because I do agree that the committee tends to pass over genre books more readily and because of the series issue.

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    OK, Karyn – you’re probably right that the love story takes up too much time (and I certainly agree that the lines you single out are icky). I actually don’t think it would be too meta to discuss the implications of the relationship between the the 50 year old Akiva and 17 year old Karou – if for no other reason than that I was convinced until very late in the book that the twist was going to be that they were father and daughter. That would have been awkward!

    But, there’s a reason we both loved it, right? I mean, I hate destined-love stories, so the rest of it must have really packed a punch with me to get me to ignore that aspect – and that’s what I’m trying to get at by saying it’s “minor.” But maybe I’m just indulging in trying to cross the “line between love and criticism.”

    Jonathan – really? You thought the love story was stronger than in Chime? I thought the relationship in Chime was so subtle and believable – with their great camraderie, secret language, etc., plus the jealousies from the other girl. All so real, where this one was just – “oh, we were meant to be together – we can’t not touch”.

    Also, I think we all agree that there was nothing wrong with the characterization – the narrative intrusions were problems of foreshadowing, plotting, style – not of Karou’s character.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    On the issue of series books, we’ve already gotten into this discussion elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t repeat what I’ve already said. How I think DAUGHTER fits in is that it never felt like a series book at all (didn’t know it was going to be) UNTIL the last chapter – at which point the book (as a stand alone) fell off a cliff for me. This is related to my complaint about structure – there just wasn’t any resolution after the flashback, or as Karyn says “then boom, that section jumps to the big flashback, and then boom, the ending which is really just the start of something more.”

    This, of course, isn’t a problem if we judge the whole series as single unit. But we can’t yet, and as a stand alone, the ending was just too rushed and obviously setting up something more. I didn’t feel that in the same way about Octavian Nothing, Airborn, or Monstrumologist even as they called for sequels.

  9. Sondy says:

    When a book actually ends with those three horrible words, “To be continued,” you can definitely argue that the story is NOT complete. I always think of such books as parts of a whole, not complete books in their own right.

    But when done so very well…? I’d love it if it gets some Printz love, but I admit I’ll be surprised.

    I was so caught up in the world Laini Taylor built, I didn’t notice too many flaws, but I do remember being bothered by the Destined Love thing. Because it doesn’t really show why they love each other. It doesn’t show why they should defy their cultures and care about each other.

    Now, the flashback was nicely timed in some ways — we waited for the big reveal of their history. We really cared about what happened by the time we found out what it was. And it was in the order that Karou learned it. But as one volume, it would have been nicer with more of the story coming after. I think you have a good point that we can’t completely judge some of the elements — like structure — until we have the entire story.

    I’m with you about a series award, except what happens when additional volumes are written after a series is already declared finished? I suppose it would be best to let the publisher decide when a series should be eligible — but only give them one chance.

  10. Liz B says:

    Series issue: Daughter was complete in itself, in that it answered Karou’s questions of “who am i” and “where did I come from.” That now another story will be told doesn’t lessen that. The ending worked for me, even if it did turn out there’s so much more to the story that this may as well be a prequel. I don’t feel cheated (ie, story not told) but rather I’m anticipating (oh, so much more to learn). I agree w/ Jonathan that it’s a GOLDEN COMPASS type of ending.

    Romance: while many called this a romance, I didn’t read it as such (or see it as such once I’d finished). Being as I’m not a fan of love at first sight / destined, the Madrigal/Akiva initial meeting didn’t do much for me, and that part of the story worked best for me as a story within a story, meaning the way it was being told was not necessarily how it happened, but rather that it was already myth so in part told that way. I didn’t think Karou/Akiva had that love at first sight thing, even if, knowing the reveal, a reread may make one say “ah, destiny.”

    Karyn, not the age thing! Next we’ll be arguing that Angel cannot be with Buffy because she’s a teen and he’s a hundredsomething etc. I think an entire post can be dedicated to the paranormal romance trope of teen girl w/ much older supernatural being (and correct me if I’m wrong, but rarely is it switched in a Demi/Ashton way where the supernatural being is female. I can think of a few, but it’s just not as common.)

  11. Martha P. says:

    I appreciated the inventiveness of the world building and the vivid evocation of setting in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. But I DID have a huge problem with the pacing. I listened to it on audiobook, and the forward motion of the plot came to an absolute screaming halt as soon as Karou meets Akiva. (I completed three entire legs of my work/home commute before ANYTHING happened!) That absence of plot then forefronted both the self-indulgence of the characterization and the adolescent nature of the romance. I finished the book (which got better, and even more inventive, at the end, until that abrupt “to be continued”), but I really had to force myself.
    And Jonathan, I guess one man’s “mired” is another’s “hooked/enthralled/riveted.” I never felt mired in The Scorpio Races–quite the contrary, in fact.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Martha, I think part of the reason that I’m so attracted to DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE is that it’s really a mystery novel in the guise of the fantasy. There are so many questions that Taylor throws at the reader from the very beginning–not just suspenseful what happens next questions, but world-building questions (Why does Brimstone need the teeth, for example). When authors do this it gives me a sense of structure for the novel as I anticipate the answers to these questions. My favorite example of this, for those who haven’t read this particular book, is HARRY POTTER 7. We know from very early on that the following things must happen before we close the pages: (a) Harry must find the rest of the horcruxes, he must find all the deathly hallows, he must learn the backstory of Snape, and he must confront Voldemort. Rowling has created a road map for readers. She excels at the what-happens-next suspense, but we also read for those bigger questions that revolve around world-building and character motivation. I get that same thing from DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE. I don’t get it from CHIME or SCORPIO RACES–or at least, not nearly so much. Thus, I feel kind of bored in those books because my mind is used to thinking these riddles or puzzles while I’m reading, but I just don’t find them in either book. This probably says more about me as a reader–clearly, since all of these books have many rabid fans. But I think that’s why I gravitate to the one, but not the other two.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    And like, Liz, the romance for me was just one element of many. If I were reading it primarily as a romance, I imagine I might be frustrated with it.

  14. Maureen E says:

    Karyn, thank you for putting into elegant words the way I was feeling about this one! I really wanted to love it, because I’m a huge fan of Laini Taylor in general and the premise sounded awesome, but I just had such big problems with the way the love story unfolded. Although, Liz’s comment does suggest a different reading of the Akiva/Madrigal part, which might help if I manage to agree. :)

    I keep hoping that this is the year a proper sf/f book will get the Printz. So far I’ve been disappointed, but hope springs eternal, right? (I also have a hard time classifying dystopias and post apocalyptic stories as scifi, because their interests seem so different, which leaves Ship Breaker out.)

  15. Carol E says:

    Okay, not being a part of the conversation earlier, I just have to add that I was entranced until the ending chapters– which literally did not make any sense to me. I read it a while ago, but I was disappointed that all the ways we learna bout the world do not hold true as the plot plays out. Huh? Maybe she solves that later, but I don’t see how she could.

  16. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Carol E: could you say a little more about what didn’t make sense about the ending? Which pieces didn’t hold true? Don’t hold back on spoilers – I think we’ve all read it. Thanks!

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