I was reading a very different, unrelated book last night before bed, in which someone says that the key to a good story is usually obsession. Laini Taylor has learned this storytelling lesson well, for her characters are distinguished by their obsessions. From Lazlo’s obsession with Weep or Thyon’s obsession with alchemy in Strange the Dreamer to Skathis’ obsession with power or a new antagonist’s obsession with revenge here in Muse of Nightmares, this motif runs throughout the series and touches every event. Obsession can be powerful, but by its very nature it also tends to be unhealthy, for it prevents us from seeing when we’re about to run headlong off the edge of a precipice.
Spoilers for the first book but not this one.
Muse of Nightmares picks up where Strange the Dreamer leaves off: Sarai has died, but her soul is captured by her sister Minya. This leaves Sarai … undead? Around, at least—but in Minya’s thrall, her free will more like a very short leash. If Lazlo doesn’t agree to bring Minya down from the citadel into Weep, then Minya will let that leash go, and Sarai will evanesce into … well, wherever it is that souls go. But if Lazlo does that, then Minya and her ghost army will wreak devastating revenge on Weep. So it’s a stand-off: Minya can’t get to Weep without Lazlo’s help, and Lazlo can’t outright refuse her lest he lose Sarai again.
So the first half of the book plumbs the depth of Minya’s trauma as a teenager trapped in a 6-year-old’s body. Sarai must venture into Minya’s dreams in order to try to heal her sister, or at least help her—but it is, of course, not that easy. With this gentle excavation of Minya’s psyche underway, Taylor must turn to another antagonist for conflict with the Mesarthim. Rather than further investigate the politics of Weep, however, she reaches deep into the past of her worlds, introducing a new character who, like Minya, is really just after revenge. And so the last half of the book becomes a mad dash to stop this character, whose power is much more formidable, from destroying everything and everyone they love.
In a way, Muse of Nightmares feels uncomfortably like two books spliced into one, or lack a backdoor pilot for another series. Kora and Nova’s story, first told at the beginning of each part of the book, before spilling over into the main narrative, is rich and fascinating in its own right. Similarly, I love how Taylor continues to expand our awareness of this multiverse of hers. The little links to her previous series are nice touches, and there are so many tantalizing opportunities for more stories here. Yet this new narrative is an intrusion into the arcs established in the first book. I praised Strange the Dreamer for its dearth of infodumps. I cannot give this book the same compliment.
The main victims of this decision are the supporting cast from book 1. Thyon and Callista are back—kind of. They spend the book digging around an ancient library, but they have no arc or conflict of their own. Each time we cut to them it almost feels like a diversion from the main story, especially considering their pairing is one of comic relief. With most of the citizens of Weep evacuated during the events of the previous book, the whole town is a shadow of its former self. There’s no substance here. Taylor focuses so much on her core cast of characters that the resulting story feels more intimate yet also simpler. Reduced.
This is true as well for the overall plot. Not only does it feel spliced together, as I previously said, but the last third of the novel feels rushed. There’s a big climax with a fight scene that is … eh. And then a long denouement in which we are quickly told the fates of the various characters while Taylor sets us up for what I assume will be the next series in this multiverse. And I like it! But it’s like a movie where the director comes back to do pick-ups and decides to add an entire new ending to the film: the events themselves are fine, yet the way in which these events unfold feels perfunctory and contrived for reasons of plot.
There are certain moments that work so well and are so satisfying—I’ll give Taylor that. Like Minya’s realizations when all that psychic weight is lifted off her shoulders. As we learn more about the Mesarthim’s past, not to mention their actual origins, we better understand what led Minya to her current state of mind. Taylor has a flair for tragedy and tragic back stories in particular. From star-crossed lovers in one book to separated sisters and survivor guilt in this one, Taylor’s writing never fails to deliver maximum emotional weight. It’s why I can enjoy these novels so much despite the plots not always measuring up.
The confused nature of this book can be summarized in one element: its title. Minya and Nova are more the main characters of this book than Sarai, yet she gets the title billing. She and Lazlo have their moments, but it’s the two heavily traumatized girls—one of them in the body of a 6-year-old, the other centuries old and bitter with failed revenge—who dominate this narrative. Taylor does her best to give all the other characters a chance to shine (hi, Sparrow!), and to her credit, she does it in a way that fits into the rest of the story. I guess what I’m dissatisfied with isn’t the quality of the story but its structure and organization.
So, please, don’t take this review as an overly negative one. Not only did I enjoy Muse of Nightmares, but I positively inhaled it. I was turning pages as fast as I could read them for the first night I was reading it. Nothing about this book has diminished my enjoyment or appreciation of Taylor’s writing. And this story delivers its fair share of emotional wallops. Its structure, and the way Taylor decided to weave in additional backstory, just didn’t work well for me. However, if you liked Strange the Dreamer, you will also like this book.