by Laini Taylor
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007
[Challenge # 6: Out of the Park at First Bat]
(Note: I am reading and blogging these Challenge books out of order)
I’ve gotta say I have a lot of problems with post-Harry Potter YA books — the ones published after that first big boom. They look so fun and enticing, and I know they have a lot of fans — adult fans — who enthuse about them. But when I get to actually reading them, most of the tine I’m… meh. They just don’t deliver on their promise. The ones I have enjoyed, like The Giver, and the Dorothy Must Die series, have other stuff going on under the surface; for the former, it’s allegory and social commentary, for the latter, it’s the author’s in-depth research of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books. I also enjoyed Tanith Lee’s Claidi series, but that’s more because it was Lee and had her trademark wild invention. So, my review of this YA book cannot be said to be unbiased, as I’m not exactly the intended audience.
Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, is the first published work by Laini Taylor, who also wrote the highly regarded YA urban fantasy novel A Daughter of Smoke and Bone and its sequels. Here, she posits a secret world of faeries, imps, devils, and sentient animals existing alongside the real one of 19th century Europe. The faeries have their own tribes, ruler, and history… of how ancient genies, more like efreet in this book, created the world and wove the spells that keep it running. In the past, there was a war among the genies and devils, the faeries helping the genies to put the devils — not red-skinned, goat-horned, Christian devils, but beings more like demons — into sealed bottles and threw them in the sea. But now humans have risen to prominence and are fishing up those bottles, setting the devils free. Magpie Windwitch is a teenage faerie who tracks them down and slays them with the help of a group of sentient crows; her parents are faerie ethnologists of a sort, who travel the world researching the magic of distant fairy tribes. She is a fighter and warrior and competent at her task, a literal manic pixie dream girl without the manic.
As such, the story sounds like it should be novel and exciting, but it wasn’t. The plot was not constructed well and a lot of it depended on coincidence and false alarms. Chasing an errant devil to a catacomb in Rome, the heroine just happens to find an ancient, magical knife and an old fairie who tells her about that knife with his dying breath! An evil devil’s lackey just happens to wander into Dreamdark and be discovered at the right moment! A trusted childhood guardian just happens to have a secret power to wander into the land of the dead! A dragon lunges at the heroine, oh noes! Wait, false alarm, he’s really a good guy! The book also had the first-time novelist’s typical problem of unnecessary POV shifts, and, by extension, unnecessary POV characters who have their single cameo, then disappear. A particularly jarring one was where the hero and heroine first meet face to face and the author keeps switching back and forth between them. That’s just not done. Granted I had an ARC and not the published book, but I doubt they would have been straightened out by publication. ARCs, to my knowledge, are just to catch layout errors and the like. The work also could have been edited more strongly; it seemed very long for a borderline MG/YA book, at least 100,000 words. It got tedious and windy for me, and I’m an adult. Perhaps one-third of it could have been cut without losing anything vital. (A subplot involving a pretender Queen of Faerie could have been cut altogether.) I grant that the length might not have mattered to someone younger, who might really want to sink into the world the author created, while for a more widely read adult, there was really nothing new.
The prose was fine, if overdone in places. No problems there. It was evocative and fun for the most part, particularly a trip by the faeries to a girls’ boarding school. The world the author seemed spent on portraying is of faerie magic in decline, but, as presented, things were actually pretty chipper. I wouldn’t mind spending the night at a faerie B&B in Dreamdark forest, these faeries’ royal seat of power, for example. After a while, though, the wordiness began to annoy me, particularly the Rule of Threes, wherein three nouns that are used for ornamentation and/or description are given three in a row, like… comfrey, nettles, and rosemary. Bluebells, lungwort and jack-in-the-pulpit. Like that, that, and that.
The other major thing that bothered me about the book was the relationship of human history to faerie history. The fairy wars and other historical events, like the disappearance of the dragons, are referenced by years passed, generally thousands, or tens of thousands. But unless fairy years are longer, they don’t match up with human history, which, by the mentions of Rome, ancient catacombs, dams, and girls’ schools with taxidermy and globes, is this one, which last time I checked was billions of years old, not created whole-cloth by genies a couple hundred thousand years ago. That’s still the last Ice Age. It’s never explained by the author how these two versions co-exist, which is weird. Evolution is mentioned in that the fairies know humans descended from the monkeys in the trees, yet modern-day forest animals are spoke of as being created at the beginning of the world.
OK, it’s just a book for high middle-grade students about faeries. But it bothers me, because it’s also doing a disservice to those young people, who surely are learning about geology, biology, and evolution in school. Or I hope. Anyway, fie on the author for no thought given to the reasoning powers of junior readers.
In the end, would I give this book to any of my nieces? Yes, it’s enjoyable, and the heroine is a good role model.