I had been told this novel was good, and that’s undeniable. The imaginative world, creative plot and exceptional writing dragged me straight into this exceptional story.
Our heroine, Karou, is a Prague teenager with lapis lazuli coloured hair who sketches mythical beasts that live behind magical doors and collect teeth. Her class, and the reader, believe she simply has a strong imagination, but it is soon revealed her secret world exists and is much more sinister than anything she has drawn. But when Karou is mysteriously cut off from her secret world she must finally face the question that has always plagued her: why was she raised by beasts?
“Work? Since when do you work?”
“I work. What do you think I live on, rainwater and daydreams?”
Half the novel is told in the present- following Karou and her mystical life in Prague, and her role in the teeth trade, while the other half tells Madrigal’s story, set in the past, who she is, and what life is like in her world. While I do enjoy a good backstory I found this novel lingered too much in the past. It felt less personal than the story being told in the present and had little details of Madrigals inner thoughts, although it did still touch on these. I didn’t like that we dipped away from the action in the present day, that had captivated me so much, to follow this backstory for so long. It felt a bit like starting a new novel right as the one I was reading got interesting- I wasn’t ready for more world building and character introduction. However, it was still an entertaining and a well written aside.
As the novel is split into these two dialogues it’s pacing is difficult to judge. While the parts that centre on the backstory felt a little longer than needed, mostly because I was desperate to get back to the present and read about Karou’s story, the parts that follow Karou was well paced and intriguing. I liked how the world building was done: first perceived through Karou’s sketchbook, and then through her own eyes. I particularly enjoyed descriptions of Karou’s life in Prague, with the ghost tour host of an ex boyfriend and bowls of Goulash with her best friend. Madrigal’s timeline was a little tricky to nail down as there were glimpses of her story interwoven throughout the novel. Her story was well written, but felt less personal than Karou’s as it wasn’t grounded in the real world, which made Karou’s story slightly more relatable.
“It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry ‘Monster!’ and looked behind him.“
The novel’s plot is fast paced and exciting, mostly revolving around Karou discovering the secrets of her mysterious life. There isn’t a build up to a big fight at the end or any kind of resolution, the entire novel centers around Karou discovering who Madrigal was. The twist at the end wasn’t exactly surprising but I didn’t mind since it was designed more to shock Karou than the reader. The novel is clearly building up to its sequel and, although it doesn’t involve any finite resolution, the author tells an exciting mystery interwoven with lots of action and revelations, making the novel entertaining in its own right.
What really made this novel was the writing style. Beautiful descriptions, delicate imagery and vivid scenes are dotted throughout the novel. Some scenes and backstories were a bit graphic for me, making me feel a little uncomfortable (I’m not a reader for gore). The sense of foreboding throughout the novel is always present in Karou’s story, giving the novel a haunting aspect. The writing style is creative and the author balances well personal thoughts, banter, descriptions and world building.
“She moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx”
I’d say this novel is aimed at older readers. The atmosphere is sinister at times and some scenes are more graphically told than I would have liked, as mentioned. It felt more like New Adult (if only it were a proper genre, alas) than young adult, although it doesn’t contain any sexual content.
The theme of good and evil is prominent throughout the novel. Karou is often questioning if her boss and father figure, Brimstone, is good and the novel holds the overall message about not judging too quickly. Karou delves into Christian imagery often when debating Akiva and his kind but the novel didn’t take any religious turns, thankfully. Karou constantly wonders what the teeth are being used for and often addresses how the sentient beasts she calls her family would be considered monsters in her world. References to real life prejudices and war made me think the author was trying to make a point, reinforced by the Romeo and Juliet type plot, but this wasn’t explored too much within the novel.
“Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters?“
In this novel we only meet a handful of characters, but all of them are well developed. Even Madrigal’s sister’s, Chiro’s, motives and thoughts are explored which makes the characters powerful and personal to the reader. I liked Karou’s dry wit and sarcastic narrative, but found Madrigal complacent in comparison- she showed a lot less spunk in her narrative. Karou’s best friend, Zuzana, was an easy favourite for me, with her quick humour and quips, the slightly dark banter between the two girls being a real highlight of the novel. It was a shame she was only in half the novel, although this couldn’t be helped, and I’m hoping to see more of her in the sequel.
It’s not like there’s a law against flying.”
“Yes there is. The law of gravity.
Overall I did enjoy this novel. It is well written and the characters were easy to like and well developed, the mystery complete and insolvable. My only criticism would be that Madrigal’s chapters could have been more dotted throughout the novel than all in one chunk. I did like that they explained a lot of things in Karou’s present but it felt too much like tangent being placed directly in the middle of Karou’s story.
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