I was really excited to read this book as it had been raved about by a couple of different blog/podcast sources. So I was especially disappointed that in the end, while I completely understand the praise heaped on it, I did not enjoy it.
It has generally been touted as being a cut above the average young adult fantasy and having read it I understand fully where these assessments come from. It is an exceptionally imaginative and creatively wrought story and world. The story is crafted perfectly, creating frustration in the first half of the book that is then fully satisfied in the second half while still leaving the reader on a cliffhanger at the end. The imagery is especially vibrant – the world is easy to picture in your mind’s eye despite the fantastical settings. There are lots of small introductions of wit and whimsy like the characters fanciful musings on Papilio stomachus – the butterflies in your stomach that respond beyond your control to certain members of the opposite sex. The dilemmas, issues and situations that are dealt with are thought-provoking. There is no clear right or wrong, bad or good – things are gray as they frequently are in reality. The monsters can be lovable, the angels can be right bastards.
Unfortunately, I had a few real problems with the book which undermined my enjoyment of the good stuff to the point that I had to take lengthy breaks from listening because of irritation and/or boredom.
My biggest problems is very likely my own special issue so take it with a grain of salt. And I’m going to explain in terms of Doctor Who. In season 3 of (new) Doctor Who, the Doctor gets a new companion named Martha. Martha is a lovely person and she is a loyal and brave companion. But I felt pretty meh about her. Why? Because Martha already had a lot going for her: she was stunningly beautiful, smart, young, about to get her medical degree, from an upper middle class family who she is close with despite some relatively ordinary dysfunctionality. And on top of all these blessings she also gets to be one of the chosen few to have adventures with the Doctor. This type of character whether it be in TV, movies or books, is not usually compelling for me…at all. I’m going to call it the Martha complex. I am, admittedly boringly, a bigger fan of stories that feature the interesting but average girl (or guy) who because of unusual circumstances or one random choice, ends up getting the opportunity to be their best self hidden at their core and experience amazing adventures. I know, it’s clichéd but it is what works for me. And unfortunately for me, Karou suffers from the Martha complex. She’s stunningly and uniquely beautiful, and though she’s just had her wee teenaged heart betrayed by her stunningly handsome boyfriend, he is still so besotted with her that he is making all sorts of grand gestures to try and woo her back. She’s a talented artist who is attending art school in Prague, she’s popular and well liked by everyone, she’s funky, unique and cool, she’s funny and charming and finally she has access to this whole other magical world – i.e. she’s special. And let’s not forget that she is humble, down to earth, and has a heart of gold which would never allow her to do the wrong thing in a situation. In a word, Karou is too perfect. And I do understand that my complaint is odd considering that most of what happens to her is, in fact, bad, but the way my brain works, Karou is having an extraordinary life because she is extraordinary. How boring. I was actually more intrigued by her sister Chiro but we are told in no uncertain terms that Chiro is not worth even the tiniest bit of sympathy because she’s ugly and has a weak soul. Basically I think I prefer a story from the ugly stepsister’s viewpoint, the people with weaknesses and flaws who do morally suspect things but who also find redemption.
The boredom with Karou and the story intensified when the romance got going. Karou’s soul-mated love is, of course, an otherworldy hot angel dude. There is a particularly egregious case of insta-love. There is initially some hint of mystery and perhaps further explanation of their innate attraction but nope, when we get the backstory, it’s still insta-love. I found Akiva (hot angel dude) personality-less and as soon as he appears and the cosmic love stars start exploding, all the life got sucked right out of the book for me. The descriptions of Akiva and Karou’s love are florid, overwrought and take up an excessive amount of the narrative. It was during the times that their "relationship" took center stage that I felt the need to take extensive breaks.
So how to rate this one? I’m giving it two stars though I feel bad about it as it has a lot of great things going for it. But the fact that my irritation caused me to stop reading at points and that I will not be continuing with the series I can’t really give it a three and say I liked it. Finally, I’ll emphasize again that the above issues that I had, may be pretty special to me so if you don’t get too worked up about overly perfect characters and true love that appears without a word exchanged, but you do really like a strong and creative story then go for it – I think you’ll love it. However if you have a strong negative reaction to Mary Sue-type characters, you may want to give this one a pass.