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Strange the Dreamer

Strange the DreamerDo I start with why this is not going to win an award, or with why it should?

Let’s start with the issues: it’s fantasy. It’s the start of a series. We’ve all heard this song before, and I don’t have faith that this is the book that will change the tune – but man, I loved it, and also it’s a sharp piece of writing from an author who just keeps improving – so I’m going to make a case for why it continues to be a travesty that this book (and books like this — quality, serial fantasy) don’t even make the speculation conversation most of the time, because I can’t help thinking this is exactly the kind of fantasy that best exemplifies the genre — no fancy genre-blending or crossover, just full on, gorgeous fantasy — and that we should recognize that even if RealCommittee’s rarely do.

Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor
Little Brown, March 2017
Reviewed from ARC

Laini Taylor has a knack for fantasy that seems both deeply steeped in familiar myths, legends, lore, and imagery and also utterly fresh and unexpected. Some of what she’s working with here may seem familiar to her already established fan base – Seraphim and orphans with mysterious origins, the after effects of a cruel war, and humanity that transcends physicality. But this is something different and richer than Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and far less plagued by issues of pacing.

World building is kind of my pet peeve, as I know some of you have probably noted. I am a fantasy reader by nature and habit, and when I read for fun, it’s fantasy. Like any self-appointed expert, I have some strong feelings about what does or doesn’t make for strong writing, and in fantasy in particular, the world is paramount. Fantasy requires an immense suspension of disbelief, and the world as the author sets it out is what carries that suspension. If the world is flawed, it’s harder to buy the magic and easier to see the flaws.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve delivered this rant before, but the search function is not great and I can’t find it right now.)

And worlds are nuanced things. Names, cultures, systems of money and trade and how food grows, politics and populations – all of this is what makes a world feel real. The magic is the layer above that, and a weakly conceived, hand-wavy magic system (or just one made of mystery) can fly as long as it’s supported by the world. Laini Taylor gets this, and develops her world as deeply as she develops characters.

The citadel, which is hand-wavy magic (literally; Skathis was the one waving his hands) rests on a solid foundation, both figurative (Weep and the greater world seem internally coherent and logical and like things would indeed work) and literal (those Mesarthium blocks, which in turn sit on Weep’s firm ground). The foundations here feel true, in part because through Lazlo’s time in the library we see that this is a world with living, changing cultures; we see tensions that have nothing to do with the primary tale but help flesh out the world: the Zosma queen’s need for money; the allusions to the competition in arts and academia that aren’t really relevant but help create the sense of a lived world; even the slightly spoiled fish that leads Lazlo to the Great Library points to a specificity and texture to the world. Taylor takes 155 pages (in the ARC, anyway) to get to Weep. That’s 25% of the text dedicated to setting up the world and establishing backstory, and it pays off in the depth of the world, which in turn allows the magic of Weep to feel real, and also makes every action feel like it matters. These are real people in a real world, even if it’s an impossible dream of a world. They have PTSD, they are scarred and scared, they are spoiled and sweet. This isn’t realistic fantasy, but it’s fantasy that feels real.

And on top of that fabulous world building is language that straight up sings. Some of it is the frequent paragraph breaks; that’s a trick of poetry, and it’s used here, often, to great effect; the prologue is a perfect example, but not the only exaample. Images build, with beats in between. Some of it is the gorgeous sentences – “That was the year Zosma sank to its knees and bled great gouts of men into a war about nothing.” Or, a few pages later, “There were two mysteries, actually: one old, one new. The old one opened his mind, but it was the new one that climbed inside, turned several circles, and settled in with a grunt… And there it would remain – the mystery, in his mind – exhaling enigma for years to come.” Metaphor, alliteration, anthropomorphization – a host of literary devices, employed nearly perfectly.

Of course, all that language and setting need a story to make them worth a reader’s time, especially with a 500+ page doorstopper, and here too Strange the Dreamer has the goods. I found Lazlo’s story more compelling than that of Sarai and the other orphans, so it may be that this is a relative weakness, but I won’t be surprised if this turns out to just be a matter of opinion and interest. Certainly the way the two threads come together at the end is a whopper of a twist (about which I have feelings, but that’s emotional, not critical; the writing was pointing the way all along, with subtle breadcrumb clues). The ending is a legitimate road block; it’s a cliffhanger that is entirely about set up for the next volume, especially Minya’s blackmail. I don’t even know if it’s an effective ending; I know I felt a little dissatisfied but I haven’t identified the why yet. It may just be the dread of the long wait for the next volume, but I think at least part of that emotional response is the intellectual frustration of feeling like the ending had too much set up and not enough resolution. I’mm be curious to hear from other readers; this conversation flared up briefly in the comments on the list post, but let’s bring it over here.

Finally, let’s touch on the themes. Long gone are the days of black and white, good and evil fantasy. There are no dichotomies here, only constant overlapping lives with conflicted characters who do nice things and not nice things. (Except Lazlo, who only does nice things, because he’s so humble and just a kind person.) Themes of family — and how much responsibility we bear to and for our families — are paramount, as is the examination of the fallout of trauma. Memory plays a large role, and the power of hope and the weight of anger and a desire for revenge. These play out in several places, and I think much of the emotional content that resonated for me was the drawn out tension and interplay between Thyon Nero and Lazlo; it’s nuanced and complicated and says so much about each of them. In contrast, Sarai and Minya are are much less compelling pairing for exploring different ways similar moments can shape two lives.

There is probably more to say — there always is! — but I’m going to leave it for you all to add to the comments, and conclude with just this: I don’t know that I think this is the Printzliest of the years books, but I think I only think that because it’s pure fantasy and I’m just as conditioned as the rest of us.

 

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I liked this a lot, and I felt this was Laini Taylor’s best work to date. I found the world building interesting, and the characters were all pretty well done, even though I kind of felt like Sarai was a paler shade of Karou mostly. I found the fact that you pretty much knew what was going to happen to be anticipatory rather than anticlimactic though. I’m not sure the story should have a sequel. I think Laini Taylor wrote herself into a corner a little bit with that ending, and I don’t think I’ll buy into whatever resolution she comes up with that’s not tragic. In this case, the ending the reader wants may not be the ending the reader really deserves. I would almost be more satisfied if the story stood alone as is. I felt that way about Daughter of Smoke and Bone, too. It ended on a cliffhanger, but it suffered from its sequels. I think it could stand alone and win an award though. I don’t see unresolved endings as stumbling blocks. Real life doesn’t usually include resolution.

  2. Karyn Silverman says:

    I don’t think this ends on a cliffhanger, but it ends with a step through an open door. An open ending that ends with a glimpse through the door is the kind of unresolved that usually doesn’t cause ripples of “standalone or not” — in this case, the ending takes it a little farther and starts spinning the new story (which seems to be about Minya and the ghosts and the tensions of memory and hate and power). So it’s open in a clearly leading to more way, as opposed to open in a letting the reader understand that the story continues. I don’t need resolution in the sense of all story lines tied up with a bow, but opening a whole new set of story lines to create anticipation feels like definite book 1 territory.

  3. Dawn Abron says:

    I too loved this book and I also hate that the RC doesn’t consider fantasy. This book contains many things the RC looks for such as multiple themes and voice.

    As far as that ending, unless someone possesses powers of resurrection, I won’t be satisfied.

  4. This is encouraging me to take a second look at this title – I wasn’t much of a fan of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and this initially sounded like more of the same, but this writeup is really great.

    Completely agree with your points about fantasy (I still resent, a tiny bit, A Conspiracy of Kings being ignored by the committee).

  5. Karyn, have you been on the RealCommittee before? How did the conversation go about the good fantasy books the year you were on the committee? Why doesn’t fantasy make it to the top of the pile for any book awards, outside of those designed for fantasy/sci-fi? Remember Ursula LeGuin’s rant a view years ago when fantasy was not given its due by the National Book Award committee. It is an unfair problem for the genre.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I was on the RealCommittee, although almost a full decade ago now! We recognized two works of fantasy that year — Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan, and Nation, by Terry Pratchett, which is as close to realism as he gets. So it’s not that fantasy CAN’T be recognized, but there are several things that help define fantasy that also make it a longer shot. Joe might be on to something with his thought about “authentic teen experiences” but I think it’s even more complicated.

      One, fantasy works are often serial, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot. For the longest discussion, I’ll point you back to this post and this one; the short version is that it’s like comparing chapters to novels, so while the award doesn’t require stand alone-ness, books that can be read in isolation do better (because committee members are rarely if ever going back to read the earlier entries) and books that are complete in and of themselves tend to stack up better than a book that is only a single part, in which things like character growth may only be apparent when the whole series is considered, so that the single volume appears weaker.

      Two, genre books in general (sci fi and mystery and horror, too, not just fantasy) tend to fare less well — books that blend genre elements or play with them do well, but true genre books are disadvantaged by being more niche. Thinking back to my experiences on BBYA in particular, we often had a few of us championing a genre book where all the non-genre readers missed all the things that were notable, and weren’t impressed so there was a lot of contention. And what works in a fantasy that appeals to non-genre readers often dilutes it for genre readers. Graceling, for example, has incredibly lazy naming. Genre readers rolled their eyes; non-genre readers were relieved because Leck City was easy to remember as the city King Leck ruled. Harry Potter 1 got a lot of flack from genre readers for being a pastiche of familiar tropes, but non-genre readers LOVED those tropes — because they are good ones — and without the context of others having already covered that territory, it seemed original and witty and awesome. (To be clear, I enjoy both Graceling and Harry Potter — but had they been on the table for Printz I would have fought hard against them for these exact reasons). This divide between readers who know the standard beats of the genre and readers who don’t means that consensus is harder to build.

      There are probably additional reasons, but those are the primary two I think make it harder for genre books to place. In children’s, where it’s a bit more common (but statistically, realistic and historical realistic are I think the most commonly recognized genres), I think there are two factors at play in fantasy’s favor — the prevalence of fantasy in the canon (meaning more people on award committees are familiar with the genre) and the relatively high number of standalone fantasy in children’s compared to YA.

      That was practically another post, sorry!

  6. Is it fair to say fantasy/sci-fi books don’t win outright? They might not win as often, but there certainly are many that have been awarded: Midwinterblood, Ship Breaker, Kingdom of Little Wounds, Monstromologist, Dreamquake, Airborn, etc.

    I will grant you, though, that the Newbery seems to go to more fantasy novels than the Printz. Is it because the RC equates realistic fiction with “authentic teen experiences”? Certainly something to think about.

  7. This is one of the few books I really loved this year. Not sure if it can win though. The writing is impeccable, so is the plot (although I will concede the romance is a tad overworked). But there is something about it being kind of unfinished. Not that this is a first part of a series, but it just didn’t close a complete story arc for me. What I mean is, “Scythe” was also a first of… But you could be satisfied with its ending and have enough closure to stop at that. “Strange the Dreamer” didn’t feel that way. In fact, after finishing it, I felt – well, where do you go from here? (Especially where Sarai in concerned. As much as I liked the romance, I think if someone suddenly learns to resurrect people from the dead, it would be too much of a copout. So what will happen with her story arc and especially their romance?) I feel the same about “Tool of War” – excellent book, but you have to have read the previous two to understand what’s going on in this one.

  8. I made a big case for this one being a Printz contender this summer at a staff mock Printz. I think it definitely has all of the pieces with strong writing, voice, and themes. I think the biggest road blocks to its success (barring the fact that the Printz is notoriously biased against straight fantasy as you say) is that the story is literally unfinished–as the text tells us. I also thought the pacing in the final third suffered as Lazlo and Sarai come face-to-face (way too much time spent on kissing even if it was sweet and made the ending all the more bittersweet).

    Some of what I said while making my case:
    “Through Weep and its history this book artfully explores themes of forgiveness and recovery as both Lazlo and the rest of Weep struggle to determine next steps for the wounded but healing city. The imagined city of Weep is evocative and vibrant with distinct customs, landscapes, and even language. The use of language is demonstrated especially well with the words in Weep’s native language used to start each section of the novel.

    “Taylor builds drama that remains taut from the opening prologue until the very last page. Written with an omniscient third person point of view this story is very self-aware and encompasses numerous points of view. This narrative structure and the tone of the novel are deliberately reminiscent of the fairy tales that Lazlo so richly loves and serve to underscore the fairy tale nature of Strange the Dreamer where magic continuously appears in seemingly mundane and unexpected places.”

    I’m reserving judgement until I read book two but I feel like this is going to be a solid duology–one that uses the two-book structure to its best effect and becomes an even stronger story overall because of it. (One example of that in completed duologies is Six of Crows which does so many clever things between the two books.) That isn’t particularly helpful when there aren’t any awards for duologies or series in general, but I’m excited to see how Taylor ties everything together in book two.

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