(Book Review) Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

Lazlo Strange is a young man without much going for him in Laini Taylor’s new YA fantasy, Strange the Dreamer; an orphan and languishing in the lowly position of librarian in a society that only values scholars, he’s likely to find a place in the hearts of readers by virtue of being one himself. His obsession with the strange, apparently missing city of Weep is the catalyst for the novel’s action; driven to help a rival merely for the sake of being kind, Lazlo is manipulated and cheated, but still achieves his dream of gaining the opportunity to lay eyes on the Unseen City when the impressive Godslayer visits the Great Library in need of help.

Just when you feel like you know what’s going on in Lazlo’s suddenly changing world, the narrative shifts to something altogether more peculiar; a teenage girl called Sarai, locked in an imposing but largely empty citadel with four other orphaned kids. They present an intriguing mix of standard adolescence – for example, there are four girls and just one boy, so you can guess what causes a lot of the tension – and something else entirely, as Sarai and her companions are godspawn: the product of Weep’s corrupt and amoral gods using the city’s people as playthings.

On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.
Her skin was blue, her blood was red.
She broke over an iron gate, crimping it on impact, and there she hung, impossibly arched, graceful as a temple dancer swooning on a lover’s arm. One slick finial anchored her in place. Its point, protruding from her sternum, glittered like a brooch. She fluttered briefly as her ghost shook loose, and torch ginger buds rained out of her long hair.

These disparate narrative strands come to intersect, but not before the reader has had plenty of time to ponder exactly what connects Lazlo, on his first ever adventure and escaping the constraints of his life so far, with Sarai, seemingly trapped without hope of escape. Taylor does a masterful job of gradually revealing the deeper details behind both elements of the plot, as well as creating the kind of intense, exhaustive layering of background and setting that leave the reader feeling spellbound.

In my capacity of stereotypical English teacher, it’s impossible for me not to salivate over Taylor’s prose. The slow-burning nature of Strange the Dreamer‘s structure means there’s plenty of scope for richly imagined settings and focused world-building. The physical descriptions, in particular, are awe-inspiring, from the library of the early chapters to the citadel; Taylor invests tremendous care and attention in developing the imagery of Weep and Zosma and their magical, unfamiliar worlds. The writer’s previous trilogy, beginning with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, utilises familiar settings like Prague to intermingle high fantasy with recognisable locations, but Strange the Dreamer occupies an entirely fantastical environment. As Lazlo leaves all he knows for his journey to Weep, the reader desperately wants to go with him, to experience these mind-boggling sights with their own eyes.

In the south and east of the continent of Namaa – far, far from northerly Zosma – there was a vast desert called the Elmuthaleth, the crossing of which was an art perfected by few and fiercely guarded against all others. Somewhere across its emptiness lay a city that had never been seen. It was a rumor, a fable, but it was a rumor and fable from which marvels emerged, carried by camels across the desert to fire the imaginations of folk the world over.
The city had a name.

It is worth knowing that Strange the Dreamer may take some effort to get into; at least, this was my experience. Admittedly, starting a 500-odd page fantasy epic in the fifteen minutes before going to sleep doesn’t seem, with hindsight, like the best plan, but it did take me two attempts to really immerse myself in the book. There’s no gradual build-up or gentle lead-in to Taylor’s strange new worlds; the author goes all-in from the outset, which feels a little bewildering to begin with. It’s rather like climbing a massive hill without the proper equipment or training, only to look down on a beautiful, (almost) entirely comprehensible plain upon reaching the summit. And then thinking, “I’m really pleased I bothered to climb that massive hill.” In short, Strange the Dreamer is definitely worth sticking with if, like me, you find the early chapters a little dense.

Laini Taylor has something a little bit special about her writing, and it means her work, although ostensibly YA fantasy, is elevated beyond the level of most of its shelf-mates. Strange the Dreamer is not only enthralling and emotive, it’s gorgeously written: at times, breathtakingly so. I recommend sitting down to read it with a suitably beautiful notebook in which you can copy down whole paragraphs and have them tattooed on your person immediately.

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