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The Thin Line between Love and Criticism
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!
Filed under: Fiction
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, as long as all the things are books. 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.
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