Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for Laini Taylor's Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters.
I finished Dreams of Gods and Monsters yesterday morning. It's the last book in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor. Books 1 and 3 of the series are two of the best books I've read in the past several years, and the accompanying novella, Night of Cake & Puppets, is one of the cutest things I have ever read in my life. (Book 2 is not of lesser quality than the others, but its character development, while appropriate for the trajectory of the novels, is brutal.)
When I was only a few chapters into Dreams of Gods & Monsters, I started drafting a blog post in my head. The title was to be "How to End a Story". This has been a rough year for endings. I've been disappointed with the endings of several stories in various media, books included. The most recent appallingly bad ending was How I Met Your Mother. I wasn't too invested in that show, but I thought Ted Mosby (and his wife!) deserved a better ending than that.
Given that I am a writer myself, I worry about being hypocritical when I'm negative about other people's work. Would I want someone talking about my characters, my story that way? No, I would not, and that's why I'm writing this post. I want to figure out what these authors did and why they might have done it so that I don't make the same mistakes.
In stories, a rule I believe in is that character always comes first.
Character + World = Plot
Let's say you've followed a character's development over three books, believed it all, and then in the last chapter of the last book, they do something completely out of character. Sure, people can change, but if a character is going to change drastically, and at the very last minute, I as a reader want to understand why. If you tell me why and the reason is believable, I will happily accept the curve-ball ending. But without that explanation, I assume the author has none, which means they violated the integrity of their character for the sake of plot, for the sake of doing something sensational.
The excuse these authors/screenwriters/showrunners generally give is that they always knew how the story would end, that they didn't make the decision at the last minute, and readers should somehow feel better because of that. I feel more betrayed because of that! If the author knew how the story would end since they started writing it, then they did put plot first, and while it's possible to bring a plot and a character's development into alignment, the fact that said authors shocked and angered their readers means that they failed to do so.
But now, back to Dreams of Gods & Monsters. I am ecstatic about this book because it wasn't just a worthy ending to a trilogy, one that the characters deserved and felt natural in terms of plot, it's a brilliant book all by itself. I might even say - le gasp! - I liked it better than Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Here's why:
The scope of the narrative
In Daughter of Smoke & Bone, the narrator hovered over Karou's head most of the time, which was perfect because we got to know and love her and see her crazy world(s) through her eyes. It got broader in Days of Blood & Starlight so that we got to follow both Karou and Akiva, who was doing some interesting things on his own. In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, the narrator is all over the place, and I loved it. Every chapter felt fresh because the narrator was following so many people, and we got to see each scene through the eyes of whoever had the best vantage point. There's also something about this style of narration that leads to fantastic comedic timing.
Eidolon eating a piece of fruit
The imagery in this scene is just amazing. I pictured the whole thing like it was a movie in my mind and I was thoroughly, delightfully creeped out.
After I read her first few chapters, I got so entranced that I started skipping ahead and I ended up reading all of her portions of the story straight through.
The bath cavern in the Kirin caves
In the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."
Laini Taylor is pro at justice. I'm not saying that all of her characters get what's coming to them; her books are not Disney movies with happy endings all around. But there is a sense of justice in the world of the books that feels natural, like it's the will of the characters instead of the author, and I love that.
Mik's three heroic tasks
This is a guy I would definitely call a feminist - Zuzana would accept no less - yet he puts himself on a mythic crusade to win her hand. It's adorable.
Akiva's character development
This series established early on that Karou is amazing, but she and Akiva had a rough start and he needed some redemption. He was also a little Byronic in the beginning, which I never like, and I was worried he would become a trope - the "hero" who acts like a miserable jerk because the girl he loves has important stuff to do and isn't paying him enough attention. Thankfully, he's matured and in this book, he takes on some important stuff of his own. The fact that he stepped up to the plate and got absorbed in his own work made me like him a lot more. It made him worthy of Karou.
Liraz's character development
I had all but written off Akiva's half-sister as a bitter sidelines character, the angry voice who brought tension to scenes that might not otherwise have it. She was sort of flat for Book 1 and for about 90% of Book 2, but in Book 3, Liraz is flat no more. There's a scene with Liraz at a river with her canteen that just melted my heart.
Epic songs should be written about this guy. Sweet and funny and brave and so... Ziri.
Laini Taylor handles the heat between her character couples with finesse. Romance from the male's perspective is often mishandled in books. Many authors shy away from the male's POV altogether, while others go too far in the opposite direction and give unnecessarily clinical descriptions of boners, as if doing so should cover all their bases when it comes to men and love.
I fear I'm treading into delicate territory here, but I don't know why since I'm not saying anything negative. My point is positive, and it's that male sexuality can be...adorable. Touch can be a powerful thing to a guy, and it doesn't have to be touch down there, it can be the brush of fingers on his cheek, a head resting on his chest, the feel of warm breath on his neck. Those things can mean so much to men, sometimes more than they mean to women. In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Akiva's feelings for Karou were distinctly male, but in the best, sweetest way possible. Karou could melt him with a touch, and validate his entire being with a smile. It wasn't just believable; it was beautiful.
Another thing I loved is that this book didn't shy away from female sexuality, a topic that's avoided even more often than male sexuality. Listen here, World: Women like sex, too. Get over it. We need more books - especially in YA - that portray female sexuality positively. I can think of more books in which girls are sexually abused than books in which girls have a healthy sexual encounter, and that is sad beyond belief. What kind of message is that sending? What kind of expectations are girls growing up with when we're showing them only the ugliest side of sex? There is plenty of happy territory to tread. I remember being a teenager and wanting to touch a guy's muscular arm but fearing I'd hyperventilate if I did. It was exhilarating, feeling something that intense! Likewise, Karou gets so tingly and fixated on Akiva's body that she thinks she's going to explode, and I am so happy for her in those moments.