I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on March 28 2017
Genres: Young adult, Fantasy
Format: Finished hardcover
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The nitty-gritty: Magical and unique, this story takes the idea of dreams and nightmares to new heights, told in Laini Taylor’s trademark lilting prose.
It’s always hard for me to squeeze non-review books into my reading schedule, so I was thrilled when a publicist offered me a copy of Strange the Dreamer, even though it was several weeks after the publication date. I’m a big fan of Laini Taylor’s rich imagination and evocative writing style, so I dove right in, without knowing much about the story. And as is usually the case, that’s a great way to approach this book. Say what you will about her sometimes-flowery prose, Taylor has a unique and magical approach to world-building that stands out and makes her stories special. I believe this is a duology, so at least she won’t be drawing the series out too long. And believe me, when you get to the end of Strange the Dreamer you’ll be gnashing your teeth in frustration, because there’s a big thing that happens at the end that I didn’t see coming. But I’m actually OK with the ending, probably because it hasn’t fully settled in yet, and I’m still mulling over the final events of the story. I only have one criticism, which knocked a half star off my rating, but I’ll get to that a little later.
I’ll give you the bare bones of the plot, so as not to spoil too much. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and we start off with young Lazlo Strange, an orphan who was taken in by the monks of Zemonan Abbey and raised as a scribe and librarian. Lazlo is twenty years old when the story begins and has grown up hearing stories about the mysterious lost city of Weep. He’s also spent hours upon hours collecting facts about the city, for Lazlo’s dream is to visit Weep someday, and he’s been given the nickname “Strange the Dreamer” because of this.
One day a man named Eril-Fane visits the abbey to recruit a group of men and women to travel with him to the infamous city. Eril-Fane, also known as the Godslayer, tells them he has a problem that he needs to solve, and so he gathers the greatest minds and most cunning people he can find to help him with this problem (which remains a secret until they arrive in Weep). Among them are Thyon Nero, an alchemist who has discovered how to make gold, a couple who can build a flying machine, and a dexterous girl named Calixte. Lazlo is thrilled to be asked to come along as Eril-Fane’s assistant, and in a single moment his dream has come true: he’s off to find the hidden city of Weep.
Meanwhile in Weep, high atop the monstrous building called the citadel, five offspring of the gods are the only non-human survivors of a terrible event called the Carnage, a war between the humans and the gods. Sarai, Feral, Ruby, Sparrow and Minya hide away for fear of being killed by the humans below if they were to ever show their faces. Each godspawn has a magical gift, and they use their gifts to survive. But they are blissfully unaware that their fates are about to intertwine with those of Eril-Fane and his party.
I want to talk about the world-building first, because it’s one of my favorite aspects of Strange the Dreamer. Usually when I see a book that uses dreams as the main story line, I cringe, because stories that take place in the dream world usually aren’t my favorite. But Taylor has made me a fan with this book! She makes the idea of communicating inside dreams a big part of the plot by giving Sarai the gift of manipulating other people’s dreams. Known as the Muse of Nightmares, it’s Sarai’s job to make sure the humans of Weep have terrible nightmares about the citadel, thus assuring that they won’t be bothered. I won’t go into details—there are some things you should discover on your own—but let’s just say the moths on the book cover play an important part in Sarai’s gift.
Probably my favorite world-building element is the creation of the citadel, a tall building in the shape of an angel with outstretched wings, hovering above the ground, where Sarai and her fellow godspawn live. It’s made of a magical metal called mesarthium, an impenetrable substance that can’t be breached. Taylor does such a wonderful job of describing it I can imagine it down to the smallest detail, she’s that good at description.
And the characters? Well, if you’ve read Laini Taylor’s other books, you know she’s brilliant at characterization. Lazlo was a wonderful MC. He had just the right amount of innocence, being an orphan and stuck away with monks his entire life, you can imagine he hasn’t seen anything of the world. But Lazlo is smart and observant, and spending years in a library has given him an advantage over the other characters, particularly Thyon Nero, the good-looking “golden boy” of the story, whose life ends up intertwined with Lazlo’s in a most interesting way.
I also loved the five godspawn, particularly Sarai, whose strange “gift” of handing out nightmares makes her vulnerable but not weak. And Minya was one of the scariest characters I’ve met in a long time. She’s stuck in the body of a six-year-old, and yet she’s ruthless and cruel. I hated her with a passion, but loved that Taylor made her that way. Ruby, Sparrow and Feral aren’t as carefully drawn as Sarai and Minya, but I’m hopeful that the next book will give them more page time, because they have unique personalities and very cool magical gifts of their own.
My one hesitation in rating this higher is the fact that the pacing really slows down about mid-way through the story. About that time, our two lovebirds—Lazlo and Sarai—meet, and Taylor spends many, many pages and chapters showing their growing fascination with each other, from intimate descriptions of collarbones and lips to agonizingly detailed paragraphs about their first kiss. The action, such that it is (and this isn’t really an action-packed story to begin with) completely falters as Lazlo and Sarai discover each other and start to fall in love, as if they are living in a bubble where no one else can disturb them (and in fact they are, which you’ll understand if you read the book.)
But luckily, the ending makes up for this slow section in a big way. The events that have been brewing all along finally come to a head, and as I mentioned before, Taylor gives us a twist that completely surprised me. There’s more than one way to make readers fly through a book, and despite a story that’s heavy on characterization and description and lighter on action, I dare anyone to put this down once you’ve started reading.
Big thanks to the publisher and Big Honcho media for supplying a review copy.