"Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate."
Zuzana from Dreams of Gods & Monsters
As I write this, my hubs is reading the first book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series and agrees that Zuzana, sidekick to heroine, Karou, is witty to the point of being awesome. Dreams of Gods & Monsters serves to affirm my love for her and indelibly inks her into my "book people I'd like to hang with in real life" list. She's like the daughter I never had: brash, mouthy, strong. At least the young woman I wish my imaginary girl child would have become. Truth? She's the young woman I wish I was, but never had the courage to be.
Oh, and Karou is terrif as well, but...you know me and humor.
"Epic." An apt word to describe this series. But wait. Don't run away! In this case it's a grand thing. A sweeping narrative across worlds that, yes indeedy, comes to a conclusion. Within just three books. No carrying on for ten books, adding more and more superfluous characters (cough, George R.R. Martin), and completely losing track of the story's central characters.
Nope, this sucker wraps up in three books.
The premise, in quick Cliff Notey summary: In the snowy streets of Prague, Karou, a young woman, leads a double life. Art student by day; by night, a thief, trafficking in teeth (yes, teeth), delivering her strange swag to a monstrous father figure named Brimstone. Meanwhile, in a distant world, angelic seraphins battle beastly chimarae in a centuries old war. And as the story unfolds, the connection between the two scenarios is developed.
There are adult readers out there who roll their eyes at YA and grumble, "Why would I want to read stories about teen angst? I want grownup stories." To which, my answer is: "Because...books like this."
This is no doubt a reflection of my choices as a reader, but honestly, the best, hands down, books I've ever read, books with the crunchiest, most mature themes, have been YA. Yeah, there's some crap--Twilight--and there's some that try to be deep--Divergent--and fall splat into a stinky hot mess. But the ranks of YA books feature some epically powerful yarns.
Dreams of Gods & Monsters picks up and carries the torch held by the previous two books, still examining the consequences of war, the futility and yes, even the necessity of violence. Exploring redemption and just what atonement means.
"What I did, Karou, I know I can never atone for." [...]"You can't atone for taking one life by saving another. What good does that do the dead?"
"The dead," she said. "And we have plenty of dead between us, but the way we act, you'd think they were corpses hanging on to our ankles, rather than souls freed to the elements. [...] They're gone, they can't hurt anymore, but we drag their memory around with us, doing our worst in their name, like it's what they'd want, for us to avenge them? [...]"
That's the essential theme of the series, that in the name of king, country, religion, or justice, we take up arms and kill each other. And sometimes it's necessary. And sometimes, not so much. And there is rarely a truly "right" side, just the side you happen to be on. But there's always someone left staring at the corpses, bleeding hot vengeance, and ready to perpetuate the cycle.
As with The Hunger Games and Red Rising, there's some powerful thinky stuff within the story. Yes, there's angst, but all good stories need angst. For me, the beauty of the story is that it's driven by a deeply romantic subplot. The kind of love story that romances should be, but often aren't. Where the obstacle to a happily ever after isn't a stupid misunderstanding, or the hero's inability to communicate (because he an alpha-hole), but the kind of vast Romeo/Juliet discord that feels insumountable. Where the non-romantic arcs are just as strong as the romantic and equally necessary.
Best of all, unlike most romantic fantasy, it actually serves up a happy ending. Or, at least, a happy middle. Because "happiness has to go somewhere."
All of this served up with enough humor to offset the angst. Zuzana and her guy Mik being the main purveyors of teh funny, but even Karou, and new addition Eliza get in some sly, observational wit.
Which leads me to another observation--"Yay for gal pals!" Fantasy can be a total sausage fest. Don't get me wrong. I loves the menz, but a common trope is the female protagonist who only has male pals. Point of fact, the strongest dynamics relationship-wise in Dreams of Gods & Monsters are between female characters.
Weaknesses? Yeah, there are some. Notably, by the last third of the book, things start wrapping up too easily. This, despite the inclusion of a new and greater menace (a thread that is left somewhat unresolved). Where, previously, it seemed that every plan Karou made bit her in the ass, now everything works out well. In some cases, with a strong suggestion of Deus ex Machina.
The story isn't ruined for this upbeat shift. Frankly, the characters deserve some good news after all the shit heaped on them in previous books. But the sudden change in fortunes feels a little out-of-place.
But...gorgeous prose, memorable characters, and heart-rending-feels-heavy moments, and happy endings for my fave characters...make for an addition to the keeper shelf.