Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Goodreads Description: 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 person 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?
My Review: Lazlo Strange is an orphan who has always dreamt of bigger things. Sarai is a godspawn with the ability to pass like a phantom through the dreams of others. Their paths eventually cross in the fabled city of Weep, which was once ruled by a handful of cruel gods who used the city’s people as their slaves. After a brutal uprising that left the city crippled, Weep’s greatest hero, the Godslayer, has traveled the world in search of the most brilliant minds to help save the city of Weep from what the Gods have left behind. Lazlo joins up with the caravan, unsure of how to help but unwilling to miss the adventure of a lifetime, and they arrive at the city to find a monstrous problem, traumatized townsfolk searching for hope, and a secret tucked away within the city. Lazlo quickly discovers that though the gods may be gone, their offspring aren’t, when he meets Sarai one night in a dream. He wants to believe that there’s a way for them all to exist together—human and godspawn alike— but after so much blood shed on both sides, is the city big enough for humans and godspawn alike? And if not, will Sarai and the other godspawn be able to escape it alive?
Where to start on a book like this. The only word that springs to mind when I think of this book is fantasy, as in this book embodies everything that I think of as fantasy: magic, creatures, immersive worldbuilding, creative mythologies, long histories that affect the current world, fresh cultures, wild dress and food, and with writing that anchors you in through the senses. Laini Taylor has the vocabulary and literary prowess to make this book play out very visually, and though she introduces many new creatures and cultures, her writing style makes it not only easy to visualize, but understand and relate to. This book reminded me of the movie Avatar in the way it creates an incredible world with an internal consistency that makes it hard to believe it’s not real. Even after the last page I find myself wanting to go back to this amazingly rich world. It can’t even be pinned down on one aspect of the world, but rather the tone of the world/book that whispers, “anything can happen here.”
It’s hard to find a lot of fault with Laini Taylor’s work as she’s a bit of a juggernaut when it comes to fantasy. The mystery in this book is really what seals in the tension, mainly the mystery of Weep, and I did feel a dramatic drop once this mystery is revealed at the mid-way point. At this time I did end up putting the book down for a couple weeks, but I was pulled back by that incredible world and beautiful writing. Unfortunately, I also wasn’t as enamoured with the love story in this book, which takes more of a precedent during the second half of the book. Lazlo and Sarai end up in a situation akin to “love at first sight,” and while the reasons for this happening make a lot of sense (Lazlo being the first person who can see Sarai in dreams and Sarai is attracted to being seen/validated, while Lazlo is falling in love with the magic of this world, which Sarai literally embodies), it still feels a bit forced/destined to be in a way that takes all the fun and mystery out of the romance. Perhaps I’m just getting old and jaded, as I’m sure this approach works well with teen audiences. Personally, I didn’t connect as strongly with the romance, and felt more sexual tension between Lazlo and Thyon Nero, Lazlo’s supposed rival. While I would have loved a romance between those two, we would have undoubtably gotten a very different book if it had gone in that direction.
One main concern I had with this book had to do with the climax. I’m not going to reveal any spoilers (I’m trying to get better about that!) but I will say that during the climax a major character is killed off and brought back to life as a ghost, under the control of one of the godspawn whose magic involves controlling ghosts against their will. This character is set up as having the same properties as when they were alive— can affect the physical world, seems to have a physical form that can be touched, etc. This raises questions for me as I feel like it strips the power away from death when main characters come back from the dead. As this took place right at the end of the book, we will have to wait for the sequel to see how this new ghost character affects the story. While the conflict in this scenario is great, I have some personal hang ups when it comes to ghost characters that make it hard to fully appreciate the ending. Due to these little things, I decided on four stars out of five. Though objectively I can’t point out any real problems, these personal preferences kept me from fully connecting with the book.
All in all, an incredibly rich fantasy with gorgeous prose and a mystery that sinks its teeth in you. Magic drips off these pages. It’s a book of fairy tales thick enough to break a librarian’s nose, and worth every page of it.
TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A richly delicious fantasy that drips magic and sinks its mystery deep into readers.