Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
on 28th March 2017
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: e-Book, eBook
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The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around — and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old, he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the guise of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries —
including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
Welcome to Weep.
If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Yes, I’m opening this review with a Shel Silverstein poem — the most obvious bit of poetry that I could have possibly chosen for a book that prominently features the word ‘dream’ in its title.
It’s fitting, though, and from a book that I grew up with, so you’ll just have to forgive me. Incidentally, it’s one of the few poems that I actually know by heart (it’s so short!), so this seems a great opportunity to flaunt it.
He read while he walked. He read while he ate. The other librarians suspected he somehow read while he slept, or perhaps didn’t sleep at all. On the occasions that he did look up from the page, he would seem as though he were awakening from a dream. “Strange the dreamer,” they called him. “That dreamer, Strange.”
Strange the Dreamer is, at its beating little rabbit heart of jade and starlight, a work of pure whimsy. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends upon your tolerance for sweet words and a fairy tale’s logic.
Look at it this way: Have you read Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy? If so, did you like it? Your answer to the second question will give you a good idea of what you’ll think of this new series.
If no, you’re out of luck, because Strange the Dreamer takes all of Laini’s traits as a writer — good and bad — and condenses them into a very potent alchemical concoction of undiluted fancy. So, yes, it’s even more over-the-top than a story of angels and chimaera and teeth and souls. If that wasn’t your thing, you’re going to hate what she’s done here, because this story is an even more robust phantasm.
If yes, you’re in for a treat. If there’s one thing that Laini Taylor does unabashedly well, it’s writing magic. Both her worlds and the words she uses to shape them are inundated with it, and it’s really damn beautiful if you don’t choke on it first.
As for the name of the vanished city, it had vanished, too. Lazlo would always remember the feel of it in his mind, though. It had felt like calligraphy, if calligraphy were written in honey, and that was close as he — or anyone — would come.
If fiction is a meal for the imagination, Taylor’s is a feast — one overflowing in sugared things and indulgence. It’s rich, it’s heady, and it’s a lot to swallow in large doses. As such, it may be too much for your palette. And even if it is to your liking, it’s bound to push the limits of your tolerance every so often.
Thankfully, our author has just enough self-control to keep it from becoming too outrageous too often. I desperately wanted to love it just as much as I loved her past treks through the extraordinary, and I almost did. Almost. Because while it’s nearly perfect, there’s a glaring flaw near the end that just doesn’t work for me, and it’s too big to gloss over. But we’ll get to that later.
In the realm of the real, she might have been just a girl, in hiding and in peril, but in the unconscious mind she was all-powerful: sorceress and storyteller, puppeteer and dark enthraller.
So, if we’re going to talk about our two sides of the storytelling coin, let’s cover the easier one first: the writing.
Taylor’s is saccharine. Very much so. It treads a very, very thin line between ‘gorgeous’ and ‘cloying’ and is sometimes a bit of both. Personally, I eat it up. Purple prose is irritating, of course, but I always appreciate books that make its writing a tangible part of the reading experience: a polished and dressed-up lens that heightens the impact of the story and breathes life as a character in its own right. It doesn’t work for every premise, and not every author can pull it off. Sometimes, simple, clean words that minimize the gap between you and unfolding events is best — a simple, invisible conveyor of one imagination to another.
Taylor’s is not subtle in the slightest. But she makes her pockets of dimension worthy of such excessive, pretty words. Granted, she pushes it at times — we don’t always need a full page devoted to countless metaphors about the power of love or an endless series of similes describing why this person is sad — but her moments of overwrought imagery are mostly split into little bits and pieces that merely gild her sentences. It makes the occasional, enormous paragraph of bombastic balladry tolerable, and they always sound nice, so it’s hard to complain too much.
It’s a book that you want to take your time with and savor, but also one that you want to rush through in order to see where it leads.
Now the bird. The presence of magic. And something beyond the reach of understanding. An affinity, a resonance. It felt like… it felt like the turn of a page, and a story just beginning.
Because if a plot ever deserved such honeyed tones, it would be this one. Lazlo Strange is an orphan who grows up in a library, fascinated with a forgotten city whose very name has been stolen from the rest of the world. That world one day comes knocking with an invitation, and Lazlo is allowed to enter a place of floating palaces, gods, and — surprise — magic.
It’s all very overblown. Just about every fantasy trope and motif that you can think of is crammed in here: butterflies, ghosts, dreamscapes, literal and metaphorical sorcery, the power of stories, angels, demons. A girl of fire. The conjuring of spirit. Blossoms and living statues. You name it, we’ve got it.
But it works. It all fits together like a well-worn puzzle that you haven’t pulled out and completed in years: all of the elements are familiar, but it turns out that they don’t immediately connect in the way that you thought they would. It’s a buffet of wonderful tableaus and settings; the sort of tale that you want to see hand-painted in warm colors and filigree. And while you can generally tell where the story is heading, it manages to surprise you either in the end result or the lead-up to it.
To Laini’s credit, then, she keeps you on your toes, even if you’re certain you know what’s to happen. I saw a few things coming early on (Lazlo is an orphan with no memory of his past — take three guesses once you’re a few hundred pages in as to how that’s going to be revisited), but others — like Eril-Fane’s way-more-sympathetic-than-I-thought-it-would-be arc or the death of a certain major character — did catch me off guard. Even the general direction of the last third of the book wasn’t what I had in mind once the full extent of the narrative was revealed. It’s a weird mixture of known and unknown, the predictable and the unforeseen. I’ve seen some complaints that the middle stretch is rather slow: it is, but I didn’t mind it. Blame the magic.
My biggest complaint is the fact that it is very similar to the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (and this leads into the reason for the diminished score, but we’ll get to that). Another tale of star-crossed lovers of curious and surreal upbringings who must bring their feuding peoples together. Hell, seraphim even prominently feature in this new mythology, as does a war between them and
chimaera demons. I half expect this to turn into a crossover. I don’t think Taylor is running out of ideas or trying to milk her past successes for all they’re worth, though. She’s found a niche concept that her storytelling works well in, and she’s sticking to it. And since I enjoyed Karou and Akiva’s exploits, I’m okay with that, so long as the rest of the series moves in its own direction from here.
“Good people do all the things bad people do, Lazlo. It’s just that when they do them, they call it justice.”
Anyway, let’s talk characters. Laini knows how to write a cast, and I haven’t read one that I’ve liked so much in some time.
Lazlo is a great protagonist who shows how good a male lead can be when you don’t keep him bottled in what ‘proper men’ are typically portrayed as — he’s allowed to feel, and be vulnerable, and be hopeful. To be naive and optimistic. He’s a dreamer with his head always in a story and a heart that believes in the best in people. He’s a scrap of sunshine too good for this world, damn it, and he must be protected.
He’s also very obviously meant to be attractive, no matter how many times he’s described as ‘rugged’ or ‘severe’ in his looks and he acts like he’s plain. Laini, you do realize that some of us go for that sort of thing, right? And stop trying to pass off a character who’s blatantly understood to look like some model as ‘average.’ It doesn’t help anybody’s self-esteem.
Anyway, his co-lead is Sarai: a woman in a tower who can enter dreams and manipulate them (you see where this is going), who wishes for a life beyond but does not know how to claim it. She’s intelligent, determined, and remarkably self-aware. What I like most about her is her sense — she sees situations from their many different angles, recognizes the complexities of human nature, and doesn’t reduce things to blacks and whites. She’s the kind of character that you wish most others would be if they weren’t so busy jumping to conclusions and charging into things with misinformation.
She also vomits moths, so that’s pretty cool.
Their supporting team is also done almost universally well. Lazlo’s cohorts, the people of Weep, Sarai’s ragtag family: they’re all either really likeable, reveal surprising depths when you least expect them to, or both. (Except for Drave, who’s just sort of there in the background to show up as a last-minute obstacle.) Props to Taylor, then, because I spent the first half of the book firmly expecting a clear good/evil schism, only for that understanding to continually shift and eventually fall apart altogether by the end. There really isn’t a clear-cut villain at this point, and the heroes (especially Lazlo) have an ignorance to them that’s portrayed as something imperfect — their blatant wholesomeness is not going to win the day for them, and they will have to dip their toes into things unsavory eventually.
It’s their general mindfulness that makes them most endearing, I think. Rather than relying on rash decisions and willful ignorance to carry the conflict forward or create drama, just about everyone has understandable motives and reasonable reactions to what’s happening about them.
It’s like finding a book inside another book. A small treasure of a book hidden inside a big common one — like… spells printed on dragonfly wings, discovered tucked inside a cookery book, right between the recipes for cabbages and corn.
It’s all fanciful, wonderful, exquisite stuff. I was fully prepared to give this book a perfect score after the first three quarters, and then…
The romance happened.
Look, I may be a cynic when it comes to many things, but romance is not one of them. Granted, this comes from a place of inexperience and gentle greed (when is it my turn, damn it?), but I love the idea of love. I really do. I can commit to the concept of soulmates and will gladly read pages about two people being perfect for one another.
Give me small moments of brushed fingers and secret smiles. Give me big moments of fierce loyalty and unwavering devotion. Give me heartfelt conversations of understanding and acceptance.
I am all about these things, but I believe that they must be earned. They are things that come with time and patience and work. You have to work for love, to keep it bright and alive, even if the first spark was easy to ignite. And that eventual outcome — of seeing two people so selflessly right and good for one another after gradually letting down their walls and opening themselves up — is so much more rewarding when it’s been built up to, when we’ve been able to see the shift of strangers to friends, from lovers to partners.
Taylor’s couples…don’t do this. They either outright skip some of the steps, or speed through them so quickly that they may as well have. It’s general interest that immediately turns into all-consuming infatuation, and we aren’t given the opportunity to catch our breath between the two.
I’m not at all surprised that our pair this time ended up as they did, because it’s exactly what happened with the leads in Daughter (hooray, more parallels). Laini loves whirlwind romances, apparently. As much as I adore that trilogy, one of my biggest complaints was the fact that Karou and Akiva’s romance was so rushed in its inception. They had, what, one fleeting meeting on a battlefield where one saved the other out of mercy as a lead-in? And that was it — the next time they came together, it was nothing but eternal pining and boundless affection.
Lazlo and Sarai are the same way, and it’s a shame, because the start of their courtship seemed like it was going to do it differently, with slowness and ease. I hoped. I prayed. I like them as separate people and as a couple, I really do. But, gods, are they obnoxious throughout the final third of the novel. You have a great gimmick to play with — one is always in his dreams, the other can enter everybody’s but her own — and a great stage on which to put it in motion. They’re both lonely and self-conscious, but brimming over with hope and a belief in change. It would have been great if they had been a same-sex couple (like a pair of really great supporting players get to be), but I’ll take what I can get, so long as it’s healthy and mutually respectful. (And preferably not between yet another thin, conventionally attractive, white, straight duo.)
Which this (mostly) is, I suppose. But it’s too much, too fast — the one bit of excess in Taylor’s storytelling that I can’t abide by. It’s not quite as bad as the Smoke and Bone example, but it’s close: three meetings inside a dream, and we’ve suddenly gone from ‘hello, mysterious figure whom I’m mildly intrigued by’ to ‘I will die without you, my other half.’ What makes this bit of wooing after it’s all said and done more bothersome than its predecessor is the lack of any mitigating plotting to soften the impact: Karou and Akiva’s hurried start was told in brief flashback at the very end of the first installment, and it was in the midst of a personal war, a brief reconciliation, and another split that took a good chunk of the remaining novels to finally heal. Here, however, the fervor just hits a peak and stays there for a good, long time right up through the finale, and all of that sustained ardor hinders the other, better stories.
The people of Weep had had no choice but to work at what they could change and tolerate what they could not — which meant never feeling the sun on their faces, or teaching the constellations to their children, or picking fruit from their own garden trees.
You could justify it, certainly. Most of their interactions do take place inside of dreams, and dreams work by their own internal logic. Emotion and feeling can certainly be warped, but that particular explanation is never explicitly considered in the text (and would have unfortunate implications if it were), so it seems an unlikely one. There’s also the usual justification of them being being young and alienated from their peers before they finally find somebody who understands them, and so it seems inevitable that they would develop something, especially when you’re in as fantastical a situation as they are. This is a fairy tale, remember? Love is a very quick thing in fairy tales, and it somehow always works out.
Sure, fine. If that ‘something’ was a crush, I would be good with it — a fling can turn into something deeper when given the opportunity. But we don’t stop there, either. No, we have to jump yet further to them being one another’s only reason to live in this cruel, cruel world, and this all happens in the span of a hundred pages.
It’s jarring and somewhat hollow. We’re subjected to long-winded descriptions of passion and yearning, to a great many musings on rightness and powerful connections and perfect fits, and it’s hard to take any of them seriously. You two met less than a week ago. Relax. Drink some water. Taylor tries really hard to make you believe it, and you do — sort of. The self-indulgent symbolism (we’re talking ‘purple prose’ territory, here) and dramatic declarations force you to accept it, sure, but only superficially. In the back of your mind, you’re wondering why this is turning into Romeo and Juliet and wishing that these fools would just calm down for five minutes and do some thinking before deciding that the whole of the universe starts and ends with the somebody that they were introduced to four days ago.
What’s especially irritating is the fact that the author outright acknowledges the rushed nature of their relationship several times near the end, characterizing Lazlo and Sarai as ‘not yet lovers, but so much more than friends,’ and yet in the same breath has them declaring that they belong wholly to one another. Is Taylor just a firm believer in love at first sight? I’m not opposed to the idea, but there has got to be a less extreme way of developing it. When you find yourself agreeing with the sort-of villain’s mockery of leads’ relationship, you know that you’re in a bad spot.
Unfortunately, this sudden shift in focus casts an oppressive sort of pall over the final chapters, because it goes on for pages — I’ve never seen so many paragraphs devoted to describing lips, what a kiss is like, and how much fuller my existence would be with somebody to caress. Breathe, you two. You have more important things to deal with. Both end up coming across as very dense in the last few pages, too, because their affair leads to some bad decisions and a ‘twist’ that they should have seen coming a mile away, as the reader will. It’s a frustrating swerve away from their well-informed characterizations beforehand.
It’s a shame, because the ending is otherwise very good. There are moments of peril, revelations (some surprising, some not), great bits of character development, enormous implications for the sequel, and a solid mix of resolutions and cliffhangers. But it’s all bogged down in a suffocating bow of melodrama, and while it’s not enough to ruin my appreciation for everything else, it’s a last-minute letdown that dampened my enthusiasm. I could feel my excitement falling the closer that I got to the end, and it was a terrible sensation, because everything else up until then had been so damn good.
Ah, well. Once we’ve moved on to bigger and better plotlines, our awkward start of a romance should become less severe with hindsight. It worked Karou and Akiva, so I’m hopeful that Lazlo and Sarai will get the same. They deserve it.
Ultimately, I went into Strange the Dreamer hoping for an experience akin to reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone for the first time. And while the similarities are a shade too strong for my ideal, that’s exactly what I got. Ms. Taylor is an artist, and I remain an absolute sucker for her work. If only she could pace her obsession with world-destroying zeal better. By all means, tear down the heavens with the power of love! Just give us a believable reason for it first.
And give me more Calixte and Tzara in the sequel, please. Let them live and be happy. We could all use more pages devoted to an expert thief and her warrior girlfriend.