Hello friends. I’ve been meaning to go back to my roots and write book reviews for this blog again but, honestly, most of the books I’ve read so far into 2019 haven’t really given me enough to dedicate a whole post about them. Oh, I’ve read plenty of 5-star books and a handful of 2- and 1-star books but for some reason, whenever I sit down and actually try to draft a review of an individual book, I get discouraged. I worry that I’ll just reiterate what other reviewers say.
As you know, a book has to be especially good or especially bad for me to want to write a full blown review of them. Ironically, both The Wicked Deep and Daughter of Smoke and Bone are neither. However, the two books were surrounded by a lot of hype when they first came out and even held a lot of promise at the beginning. When they inevitably disappointed me, I was especially stung.
The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
Despite what its blurb and book cover insinuates, The Wicked Deep was quite tame and shallow.
The book has an attention-grabbing premise: the ghosts of three sisters executed after a sham witch trial come back year after year to haunt the tiny town of Sparrow and drown teenage boys to their death. The harbor town of Sparrow is powerless against this annual curse and, as the centuries pass, they eventually learn to live with it. The yearly death toll is even a tourist attraction and the teenagers themselves, probably to avoid thinking about their imminent danger, don’t take it seriously for most of the year until it starts happening again. Quite a grim set up that I was ready to lose myself in.
From the get-go, I was already wary of the promises this book was making in the beginning chapters. There were too many insinuations that something dreadfully terrible was going to happen but it just didn’t have enough material to back it up.
At its best, the book had a good grasp on the dark atmosphere it intended. There were awkward passages though but not too many to eclipse the effective prose. The narration was simple but also potent enough for me to actually taste the salt air in my tongue as I kept reading. Moreover, the chapters were easy to read and I never really had to second guess what was happening in a scene. It had decent writing.
The Wicked Deep also used beautiful imagery. Most of the story occurred in the little lighthouse turned private island where the main character lives alone with her mother. It must be the hermit in me but I adored the idea of staying in such an island. Imagining that island was one of the few joys I got out of this book, to be honest.
The Wicked Deep has a very weak plot that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The way the story unfolds, you can’t really even say that there was a mystery that needed solving. The plot twist’s predictability wouldn’t have been too bad if the book did something with it. And even if you don’t guess the twist in the first hundred or so pages, it’s not all that interesting when held on its own either.
Probably the biggest fault this book has is that its insistence of writing the Swan sisters’ story. Rather than letting us readers speculate whether the sisters were truly guilty of witchcraft or if they were just victims of their small town’s prejudice, The Wicked Deep lays it all out on the table. Subtlety be damned. Every other chapter, we’re set back in time with the Swan sisters but, funnily enough, the more I learned about them, the less I cared about them. In all of the sisters’ chapters, it’s stated by one or two of the sisters that they know that the town believes that they’re witches but they don’t care. THEY DON’T CARE. This was back in a time where witchcraft accusations were serious and inevitably led to execution. Yet the Swan sisters were able to shrug it off? They didn’t even try to convince the town otherwise. In fact, they seemed to enjoy it.
Moreover, the characters were all too one-dimensional to form any attachment to. The main characters, Penny and Bo, were uninteresting and so were the supporting characters. And don’t get me started on the romance! Penny and Bo had no chemistry, their interactions awkward at best and painful at worst. I skimmed their pseudo-deep conversations and found that I missed nothing essential to the story.
Lastly, the ending was… bizarre. I won’t go into too much detail but, my god, Bo could have just left town. Having him continue a relationship with Penny felt so forced and, to be honest, creepy.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Quick disclosure: I adored Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer when I read it sometime last year. The writing was deliciously dreamy, the characters three-dimensional and fascinating, the story so thought-provoking that I still vividly remember it in its entirety to this day. I loved the book so much that the moment I closed it I went on the hunt for Taylor’s other books. I knew she had a trilogy, had seen it in bookstores but wasn’t too taken by the blurb, and after a series of desperate sniffing around in the online book selling community I was part of, I eventually got my hands on the first book of the series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
I initially meant to buy the boxed set of the trilogy but thank god I couldn’t find a decently priced one on time because this book and this series is obviously not for me. There were little hints and threads of what I loved about Taylor’s writing and storytelling but, unlike in Strange the Dreamer, the ornate writing and flowery imagery got in the way of the actual story in this book. And the story itself! I doubt Lazlo Strange himself would care much about it.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone centers mostly around young Karou who was raised by chimeras but lives most of her life in the normal world. She doesn’t know where she came from or why the chimeras took her in but she knows deep in her heart that something is missing in her soul. After an breathtakingly gorgeous angel nearly kills her, Karou’s left on her own with more questions than answers.
Although a good chunk of this book was set in modern day Earth, Taylor was still able to give an ethereal air to Karou’s, world. Though to be fair, Karou does live in Prague and that place, from Google maps at least, looks frozen in time.
There were also a lot of interesting ideas and concepts that no doubt would be more explored in the succeeding books. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll give the second book a chance.
This book’s strongest suit, as many reviewers have noted, is its writing. Sure the first few chapters were a bit too elaborate, especially since it was just establishing the reader to the normal world Karou lives in, but it quickly simmers down to a tolerable degree by chapter three or four. Once the purple prose calmed down, the book eased onward more smoothly but still kept a distinct polished voice that is Taylor’s specialty.
Karou’s relationship with her best friend Zuzana was quite nice too. Their banter was endearing and convincing – you can tell that the two girls are actual friends with actual history. Their chemistry is undeniable.
The same can’t be said about Karou’s relationship with the love interest. And considering that this book’s main thrust is its gravity defying romance, it’s not a good sign.
The moment the book introduces Akiva, the love interest, everything immediately goes downhill. Whatever high expectations I had for the book were tossed out the window when I realized where the story was going. And it was quite obvious where it was going when Akiva spots Karou and instantaneously becomes interested in her.
Here’s the thing: I don’t mind romance. I don’t even mind cliched romances that go extra on the cheese. What I do mind is a romance that’s so obviously about physical attraction yet keeps insisting is so much more because… y’know, fate and such.
What makes it all worse is that once the reason why Karou and Akiva feel such an intense pull towards the other is revealed, it’s still hard to buy that their insta-love is all that special. The plot twist is underwhelming and honestly kind of predictable.
The unceasingly dull romance wouldn’t be so bad if there was more to the book than a long and elaborate set-up for the next book. Seriously, this book doesn’t even have much of a main conflict. The last quarter is just an extended and overindulgent flashback. All the action comes to a grinding halt to exposit Karou’s (and Akiva’s) backstory… half of which isn’t even all that integral to the story.
If this book had a more severe and fastidious editor, maybe it’d have had a better chance at telling a more complete story instead of just a 400-page prologue.
It’s weird to me how both of these books could have been vastly improved if there wasn’t so much of a focus on the milquetoast romance. And no, I’m not just saying that as an aromantic. I’m saying that as a person who loves picking apart stories to see how they work.
Both The Wicked Deep and Daughter of Smoke and Bone was built on the premise of such a deep love between the two teenagers yet both books spent more time telling us how cosmically special their connection rather than showing us that they were better together than apart. Daughter of Smoke and Bone in particular had little going on in Karou’s and Akiva’s love other than they’re both so stupendously beautiful. And that’s the real tea.