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Strange the Dreamer
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.
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.
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