Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.10 / 5.00
Karou lives a double life. Most of the time she is an art student in Prague, dealing with her horrible ex-boyfriend and enjoying hot chocolate and other goodies at her favorite cafe with her BBF Zuzana. Although she looks a little different, mainly because she has bright blue hair, Karou is a good student and retiring character, who does not stand out from the crowd too much. She does have an amazing notebook full of fantastical hybrid creatures, though . . .
In her other existence she is the delivery person for Brimstone, her ‘father’. He is a Chimera, with the head of a ram but the eyes of a crocodile and the legs of a lion. He is known as the Wishmonger, and exchanges teeth from many different animals for wishes. His shop occupies a space in a different dimension, so that it can be accessed from anywhere in our world so, when Karou runs her errands, she can be in Paris, New York, Hong Kong or anywhere else that a door can open.
One day when she is returning from an errand she notices that a handprint has been burnt into the doorway back to the shop. She thinks nothing of it until she travels to meet a regular client in Marrakesh and encounters a being that appears to be an angel. They fight, but she is able to defeat him by facing both her palms towards him: something about the eyes tattooed onto them causes powerful magic to flash towards him.
Then all the doors to the shop are closed, leaving Karou alone and fearing for her Chimera friends. Meanwhile, we follow flashbacks to a romance between the angel, Akiva, and the beautiful but mysterious Madrigal. As we learn more of their history it becomes increasingly clear that Brimstone and the other Chimera are keeping some important secrets from Karou.
I saw so many 5 star reviews for this title that I was a little concerned that it would not live up to my expectations. I could not have been more wrong!
From our first introduction to Karou, I was grabbed by the perfectly toned writing and excellent world building. I have never been to Prague, but I have visited enough old European cities to recognize a great description of the sights, sounds, smells and general atmosphere that she captures for us. I could say the same for all the locations that we visit. The market in Marrakesh had me picturing the Egyptian market scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, while the more fantastical places also had a solidity that served the story well. I had one little niggle about the races created, in that the Chimera seem to hold the human shape as being the most desired and beautiful. Given that their adversaries are ‘perfectly’ humanoid, this seems a little contradictory, but the writing was so strong that I could forgive it.
The structure of the story is also a little strange, which some people might find off-putting. However, once the ‘big reveal’ occurs, the plot arc actually makes a lot of sense and also explains some of the ‘insta-love’ that I found irksome earlier in the book. As I am not a massive fan of Romance, I was a little worried that the relationship between Karou and Aviva moved far too quickly considering their positions on the opposite sides of an ancient war, and I was preparing myself for some serious eye-rolling and annoyance about this cliché. Instead, I was totally invested in their story and found it poignant and moving rather than nauseating, which I found to be a very pleasant change.
So, taking those negatives into account, why have I given this book five stars? Well, that would be because the strength of the characterization and writing overrode my concerns well before the end of the book and left me raving about this book to random people who happened to ask for a book recommendation.
Karou is one of my favorite heroines in the books that I have read this year. She is pretty, but not in a way that has attractive men throwing themselves at her all the time, and is more attractive in an otherworldly, intriguing way than in simple good genetics. She even has the problem of having dated the world’s worst boyfriend, who is amazingly narcissistic and is determined to get her back into his bed, mainly because she dumped him, which is not what is supposed to happen. The way that she deals with his sudden appearance in her life drawing class (yes, that is the one with the naked human model!) is hilarious and had me snorting coffee out of my nose. In fact the humor of the life classes and the various models is a very good reason to read the book all by itself.
Although Karou does exhibit some rather annoying self-absorption and lack of assertiveness, such as when she forgets to mention the handprints appearing on all the portal doors back to Brimstone’s shop, this does seem consistent with her age. She is a fairly typical teenager and so she does not always do everything perfectly, and sometimes lets her emotions over-rule good sense. In many ways this is refreshing and makes her seem less ‘special’ and more real, in contrast to many teenage heroines who can often be far too perfect and level-headed to be realistic. She certainly shows enough good sense to have dumped the awful Kaz, even though he seems to be a god amongst men. However, I really liked her use of the wishes she has earned from Brimstone to make her hair naturally blue so that she does not have to keep dying it: Brimstone says that this is frivolous, but it seems to be the obvious choice for a teenage girl.
Akiva is much less well developed, but he is also an interesting character who behaves in an understandable way. Bred to be a warrior in an eternal war, he has come to question the policies behind the fighting and, as we learn more of his past, we see that he has good reason for this. He is full of doubts and regrets, and yet he is locked into the only life that he knows: he is trained for only one role and does not know how to break away from that.
Of the secondary characters, my absolutely favorite is Zuzana. She is so sarcastic and hilarious that I wish that she had been given more book time. She is a wonderful BFF for Karou, and handles the things she learns with an amazing amount of good grace and with no evidence of prejudice. She is a perfect support for Karou and is also massively entertaining to read. I would like to see her become the heroine of her own series!
The various Chimera at Brimstone’s shop are all loveable and absurdly ‘human’. The bravery and feistiness of little Kishmish, who is like one of the Game of Thrones ravens on crack, was actually touching, which is great for a non-speaking character. The love and motherliness shown by the part-snake Issa was a nice counterpoint to the brusqueness of Brimstone, who is a caring but slightly remote character. As we learn more about the Chimera, their work in the shop becomes increasingly less grizzly and more poignant as it becomes obvious that they are not the evil, demonic beings that we might expect.
I cannot wait to read the second book in the series: Days of Blood and Starlight.
Other Reviews I Recommend: