Author: Laini Taylor
Series: Strange the Dreamer (#1)
Read: July 1st-6th
Publisher: Little, Brown Books
Release Date: March 28, 2017
Genre: high fantasy
In short: Under the pretty language there’s some insta-love, some confusing mythology, and setting that should’ve been fleshed out more. I had hope, but it was not to be.
Mild spoilers for Daughter of Smoke and Bone!
Goodreads: Strange the Dreamer is the story of:
the aftermath of a war between gods and men
a mysterious city stripped of its name
a mythic hero with blood on his hands
a young librarian with a singular dream
a girl every bit as perilous as she is imperiled
alchemy and blood candy, nightmares and godspawn, moths and monsters, friendship and treachery, love and carnage.
Welcome to Weep.
Back in the wild, wild world that was the YA booksphere circa 2012, I really liked the Daughter of Smoke and Bone books. By then I was moderately well-versed in tropes, but I mostly let the clichés slide. After all, I was experiencing all this—broody love interests, dramatic romances, cool twists on paranormal premises—for the very first time! Now, I’m a bit more cynical. And I don’t know if it’s Laini Taylor or me, but Strange the Dreamer was a little too trope-y, and Taylor’s prose (don’t get me wrong, it’s gorgeous) was too heavy. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed!
≫ THE PLOT:
“[…] This is our city, that our foremothers and forefathers built on land consecrated by Thakra. We won’t forsake it. That is our sky, and we will have it back.”
Lazlo Strange has always had his head in the clouds, from his time as an orphan listening to stories to his daydream-filled hours at the Great Library, where he works. But his real dream has always been finding Weep, a mystical city far, far away; foreigners haven’t been to Weep in decades, and its true name was literally erased from memory. So his dreams come to life when a delegation arrives from Weep one day, gathering experts to fix the city’s problem.
Cut to Weep—the city’s problem is in fact a giant metal statue hovering over Weep and blocking out sunlight, a statue made of metal that only gods could work. Those gods were killed when the humans of Weep had finally had enough of their brutal rule, and now the humans want to remove the last remnant of a horrifying past. Except the statue isn’t empty… and as we discover, the gods haven’t been totally wiped out either.
This premise is undeniably cool, and very Laini Taylor. It’s so outlandish and creative, there’s countless ways this story could play out. Unfortunately… Strange the Dreamer doesn’t really rest on action and plot, unlike the Daughter of Smoke and Bone books. Lazlo is, for the most part, hanging around Weep and dreaming. Sarai, the female main character, is hanging around the metal citadel and dreaming. They don’t do things; things happen to them. That, combined with the heavy prose, makes for a very slow novel, and there’s some bits in there that are very, very unnecessary. Even despite these issues, though, this novel could’ve worked if the main characters had truly been fascinating. We’ll get to that in a bit.
≫ THE WRITING:
Like I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the writing in Strange the Dreamer crosses the line from evocative to just… draggy. I don’t really blame Taylor for this; I think the editor should’ve had a stronger hand in trimming down her prose. I can almost understand the temptation to leave in Taylor’s writing as is, because the novel doesn’t really have a stunning plot, so the pressure is on the prose to conjure perfect, stunning images of the author’s world. But I don’t think it’s fair to give the language of this book a free pass—most fantasy has to be carefully written. Daughter of Smoke and Bone at least had the human world to anchor it, so it had some elements of realism. Here, there’s almost too much freedom to describe, resulting in lines like:
Sarai’s were at the extremity of the dexter arm—which was a way of saying right, as sinister was a way of saying left—down the long, curved corridor from the gallery.
I was wrenched right out of the story when I read that. Maybe don’t use fancy terms that have absolutely no importance in the grand scheme of the novel if you have to explain them?
Anyway, my point is, there are some really gorgeous settings and descriptions—like Lazlo’s dreamscapes—but there’s a limit to what I’ll swallow. There’s also some weird perspective changes, sometimes even mid-paragraph. That threw me off, especially within the dream sequences.
≫ THE SETTING:
The city of Weep is well-described in Strange the Dreamer, but it doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s a classic case of fake worldbuilding—there’s a couple of stories about blood candy and mythical creatures and falling plums, and you’re fooled into thinking you’re reading about a rich tapestry of a world. But I complained about this even while reading: there’s nothing remarkable about the culture of Weep, nothing to set it apart from other fantasy worlds or even other fantasy kingdoms in the novel. Where’s the visiting foreigners’ culture shock? Other than language, what makes Weep different? Yes, it has some amazing marvels and stories, but is this isolated, strange population really that similar a society to the outside world? For that matter, we don’t even have a good enough picture of Zosma, Lazlo’s home, to do the contrasting ourselves. If only there had been a little less time spent on telling us what dexter and sinister meant, and a little more time on actually fleshing out Weep!
≫ THE MAIN CHARACTERS:
No one who ever lived, she thought, knew more of shut eyes than she did.
Sarai was… what can I say about Sarai? Almost half of the book is from her perspective, but I just couldn’t get a read on her. She’s a little like Madrigal from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, made of idealism, romance, and #feelz. The thing about Madrigal, though, is it didn’t matter how two-dimensional she was; Karou had enough fire to more than make up for it, and Madrigal wasn’t the main character anyway. Madrigal’s perspective is allowed to have the hazy feel of memory, because that’s all it is. Sarai couldn’t afford to have so weak a voice, but she does. As a reader I know her thoughts, actions, and internal conflict, but she barely has substance beyond that. And definitely not enough substance to carry a slow book.
Lazlo’s dream was spilled out into the air, the color and storm of it no longer a future to be reached, but a cyclone here and now. He didn’t know what, but as surely as one feels the sting of shards when an hourglass tips off a shelf and smashes, he knew that something was happening.
Lazlo is not really a better main character than Sarai. He has more page time, so there’s a stronger sense of his personality, but he’s kind of… boring. Like Sarai, he’s really idealistic, and of course a passionate dreamer. But he’s boringly good. He doesn’t have beef with anyone, not even the obnoxious Thyon Nero, for the entirety of the novel. At least Sarai has internal conflict. He was a decent enough narrator and again, I wouldn’t have minded the way he was written if there was something else in the plot drawing me in. But nope.
≫ THE OTHER CHARACTERS:
Some potential here, but unfortunately the supporting cast is very much a supporting cast. I feel like the journey to Weep might’ve interested me more than the actual novel (it’s skipped over quite quickly) because the band of experts and mavericks that accompany Lazlo are pretty intriguing. Their escort—the mighty Tizerkane warriors—were really cool characters, and I’d have liked to get to know them better. The same goes for the rest of the delegation, because they’ve done some fascinating things! Thyon Nero’s chapters were especially great. But as the novel focuses more and more on Lazlo and Sarai’s dreaming, they get sidelined.
Instead, Sarai’s fellow godspawn get more page time, which didn’t seem to flesh them out any more. They’re pretty two-dimensional and are mostly defined by their gifts. And for some reason, we get their perspectives so we can see them hooking up. Seriously?
≫ OF VILLAINS:
Thyon Nero made an interesting antagonist, even though he doesn’t really do anything to impede Lazlo; their dynamic just worked for me. But he’s not the main baddie. That would be Minya, the only one of the godspawn who’s actually violent and bitter about how the gods were murdered. She can bring souls back as ghosts, and bind them to her control. Even though I could see Minya’s role coming from about a mile away—she gets more and more antagonistic as Sarai grows to trust Lazlo—I was excited to see what she would do.
≫ THE ROMANCE:
Too sappy, too quick, too…you name it, and this romance had a little too much of it. It’s almost less realistic than the red string of fate love from Daughter of Smoke and Bone. We already don’t have solid enough pictures of Lazlo and Sarai; smashing them together and saying now kiss! isn’t going to make me root for them any more. Again, it’s the potential that makes this hurt so much. I was impatient to get through their little dream dates because I expected something grander than two strangers falling in love too fast to conclude this story. If the romance had been more believable or interesting, in literally any way, I would’ve given this a pass. But it just didn’t work.
≫ TO SUMMARISE:
I know it seems like I really disliked Strange the Dreamer, but the reading experience wasn’t bad. It was just…frustrating. I wish there had been more to it, and considering the truly TERRIBLE ending (which I shall discuss below) I probably won’t finish this series. If you’re willing to forgive the issues I saw in it, then be my guest. Just keep in mind that I thought I would love it because I genuinely could look past these problems in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I couldn’t here.
Spoilers for the ending ahead!
≫ THE ENDING:
Is? No one else angry about this? Guys?
First off, the big plot twist that the whole novel builds up to was the most transparent thing ever. Lazlo is one of the godspawn, McDuh. We all knew this. The question was what his gift would be, and about 75% through you can guess what that is too—the power to control mesarthium, move the citadel, and ‘save’ Weep. If the whole story was banking on a juicy reveal (which it kind of was for me) then it should’ve been a little less obvious. But that’s not even the infuriating part of this ending.
Near the climax, Sarai dies. Lazlo decides to adopt a personality right then, and it’s that of a grade-A idiot. I was literally flipping through the end of the book screaming internally because I could tell exactly what he would do and I knew exactly why it was a terrible idea. He takes Sarai’s corpse up to the citadel, where Minya awaits with her horde of angry spirits. He asks Minya to bind Sarai’s spirit. She does. SURPRISE, SURPRISE, Minya now has control over Sarai’s ghost and can emotionally blackmail Lazlo into doing anything.
Now, why this is a terrible move on Lazlo’s part: he should’ve known better. He knows Minya can control the ghosts she binds. Like, mind-puppet control. But he, what, forgot that his girlfriend wasn’t an exception to the rule? Not only do I find that hard to believe, but where are the other godspawn to stop this from happening? Did all the time I spent wishing they would stop taking up POVs actually make them disappear for the grand tragic ending? I reread the ending and it appears they were physically present and did nothing to stop Minya from bringing Sarai back from the dead. Uh? And it’s not over yet!
“There’s only one rule. You do everything I say, or I’ll let her soul go. How does that sound?”
There was always a flaw in the plot twist of Minya controlling Sarai—she’s already dead, so there’s nothing Minya can actually do to hurt her. Her threat is literally do what I say or I’ll let your already-dead lover stay dead. So not only is Lazlo senseless enough to allow her to bind Sarai and gain power over him, he’s selfish enough to let it continue. It makes me furious that Lazlo has known Sarai for a matter of days and he’s decided he absolutely can’t live without her—even the Minya-controlled ghost version of her. She’s conscious as a ghost, which means she has to endure being used as an actual puppet. Did anyone ask if Sarai wants to go on existing as Minya’s toy?! No doubt Minya will use this to further hurt the people of Weep. And all of this is okay, because Lazlo loves Sarai. That’s ridiculous. That’s not love.
Karou made the hard decision at the end of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I wish Lazlo had too, because then maybe we could’ve had a cool story about, I don’t know, the countless godspawn hidden all over the known world, maybe? Instead it’ll be petty angst.