Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Oddly enough I recall being worried I wouldn’t like this book as I started it. And, of course, having finished it, I don’t know whence that trepidation originated, because of course Laini Taylor has delivered another sound tapestry of rich, fantastical storytelling. Could not put down Strange the Dreamer and would have read it in a night if I had the time.
This lyrical title sounds like a play on word order or the opening of a Shakespearean monologue at first, but of course it’s actually just a title for the main character, Lazlo Strange. An orphan raised by monks, he finds himself work in a great library and starts to obsess over stories of a vanished city beyond the desert: Weep, though that isn’t its true name. Lazlo’s amateur scholarship attracts the attention of a pretty-boy alchemist, and then both find themselves invited to Weep by a delegation of its citizens, hoping to garner enough talent from these cities to help solve a unique problem. Lazlo, unlike the other representatives, has no official position, no talents, but finds himself among them anyway, living his dream of visiting Weep. As with any Taylor story, though, there is much more going on. There are gods, both dead and living, and scared people, and monsters—and some of these things are one and the same.
Strange the Dreamer establishes this entire fantasy world with a nearly-magical amount of minimal exposition. I know next to nothing about the political organization of this world. I know there’s a kingdom named Zosma, and a few other kingdoms, and whatnot. So in that sense, it might sound at first like your generic fantasy setting. Yet Taylor manages to hint at a richness that’s present, even if it’s never fully felt, leveraging that quality fairytales possess of tricking our minds into filling in the pieces without even realizing that’s what we’re doing. I feel so much more familiar with this world than with some more detail-filled stories I’ve read.
Enjoyment of this book probably rests on the shoulders of its two protagonists, Lazlo and Sarai, and whether or not you like them and/or believe their romance. To be honest, although Taylor manages to convince me their romance is fairly inevitable, it also doesn’t interest me that much (maybe because it seems inevitable). There’s very little conflict between them, very little in the way of actually getting to know one another. Sarai dying before they could ever really meet in person (that one time excepted) is tragic, sure, but it also means that their romance never really goes beyond the “I’m kind of into you” stage. That being said, by bringing Sarai back as a ghost in thrall to Minya, Taylor certainly opens up the door to a lot more possibilities of personality and interaction in book 2.
I suppose that’s the part of Strange the Dreamer I liked least: the cliffhanger. I don’t feel cheated by any means—over 500 pages is more than enough book for me, and Taylor delivers a stellar story in that space. Obviously there’s just so much more story to tell. So I don’t begrudge her the cliffhanger itself. Maybe it’s just where the story ends that bothers me. For one thing, I kind of saw the reveal regarding Lazlo’s heritage coming from … oh, hundreds of pages away? Like, it’s fairly obviously telegraphed. This made him a less interesting character for me—I suppose, at this point in my fantasy-reading, I’m kind of over Chosen Ones or Special Protagonists and more into the Average Person who just ends up in a situation and has to Do the Best They Can. Nothing about Lazlo’s heritage invalidates how much I enjoy the rest of his actions, but it diminishes my overall enjoyment of his character.
Taylor also seems to set up a lot of characters who then fall by the wayside. We meet the various members of Eril-Fane’s handpicked delegation. Some of them, like Thyon, are a constant presence; others, like Drave, show up just to get killed off and provide some plot devices. But others seem to evaporate from the story, never to be heard from again, at least for now? I hope they return in the sequel, because otherwise, why bother introducing them to us in the first place? It just seems very uneven, and that left me less-than-fulfilled.
Fortunately, other aspects of Strange the Dreamer kept me much more interested. I love the dynamics among the Godspawn. Minya’s white-hot rage over the Carnage is such a contrast to Sarai’s forgiveness and compassion, and Taylor does a great job showing us why each of them feels the way they do. The subplot/lust-triangle between Feral, Rose, and Sparrow is well done, both because it isn’t overdone and because there’s a genuine sense of loss there, an acknowledgement that sometimes what you do is going to hurt people, and having done it, nothing you can do will ever make things the same between you again. Certain choices are irrevocable. These interactions are where this book seems like it’s at its most Taylor-esque, reminding me a lot of the moral ambiguity that so invigorates the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.
Speaking of which, I love the inclusion of the myth of the seraphim in this book. Seems like a clear hint that this book exists within the same multiverse as the previous trilogy (whether or not there is ever any crossover). It’s tastefully done without being too on-the-nose.
Laini Taylor back at it again with those good novels! Strange the Dreamer just really hit the spot: good, original fantasy. I don’t know what else to say. I’m satisfied, and yet I also want more. Bring it.