on October 2, 2018
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Format: eBook, ARC
In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.
Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she's capable of.
As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel's near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?
Always and forever: the children. Each face was seared into her mind, two versions of them, side by side: alive and terrified next to dead and glassy-eyed, because she had failed to save them.
They were all I could carry.
If Strange the Dreamer was a story about clutching to hope while searching for yourself and a place of belonging, Muse of Nightmares is about trauma: attempts to bury it, the horrible fear and rage and emotional damage it causes, and the slow and difficult process of healing from it. Yeah, it’s also about magical young blue people and colonialism and Tizerkane warriors and a city named Weep which is itself traumatized from brutal oppression. But as I said, to me, while the other elements are all vital to it, the overarching story is ultimately about trauma and healing.
When I requested an ARC of this, I was a bit hesitant. I had loved certain aspects of Strange the Dreamer, but also strongly disliked that novel’s pacing and some of its plot developments toward the end. Luckily, Muse of Nightmares goes far beyond simply fixing what I didn’t love about StD; I would actually go so far as to say that this novel was so beautiful and resonant that it makes me want to reread the prior one to discover if I’d see it in a new light now.
This novel begins, technically, right at the point its predecessor ended. Technically, because the opening chapters actually focus on two sisters’ desperate hopes and struggles against despair in a different world. It’s the type of character introduction which I think could be tricky for an author to pull off mid-series, but Laini Taylor pulls it off, immediately and vividly setting up Kora’s and Nova’s bond and the bleakness of their homeland.
Everyone else was smeared and greasy and dark with blood, some still clutching their hooks and their knives.
They looked like a swarm of murderesses boiling out of a hive.
(Can we just have a moment of silence for the way that sentence is constructed? “Boiling” is such an amazing word choice.)
When we zoom back around to focus on Lazlo, Sarai, and the other godspawn, it’s to the middle of the standoff between them and Minya. Oh, Minya. I know many readers likely hated her at the end of Strange the Dreamer, but I’m so happy with the path Taylor chose for developing Minya and the various godspawn conflicts in this novel.
While I could jump right in to just listing off a bunch of stuff I loved in this book, I’m going to try (keyword: try) and retain a degree of chill that I don’t actually possess regarding it. I’ll first discuss the plot, then the characters, and lastly the writing and themes.
One of my chief complaints about Strange the Dreamer was its pacing. If you read my review, you’ll know that it took me over a year to actually read it from start to finish, which is super abnormal for me. Normally, if a book takes me that long, I just mark it as a “dnf” book and move on to the mountainous hoard of other as-yet unread books (whether library-loaned or owned in digital or paper format) I have to read.
I guess something about the world and characters Laini Taylor created drew me back in, though, which I’m thankful for; if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have read this glowing jewel of a novel.
While the plot in this novel also generally paces itself as slowly as a river of molasses, it’s a nice, rich, gourmet river of molasses that I didn’t at all mind being stuck in. One thing I found more engaging this go-round was the way Taylor used the switching of characters’ perspectives to continually keep me turning pages, always wanting to read just another chapter. One moment, you’re focusing on Sarai, and the next, maybe Thyon Nero or Nova or Eril-Fane or Sparrow.
The changing perspectives – always in a well-written, clearly delineated third person omniscient tense – made the plot and narrative really engrossing to me. I always looked forward to Nova’s and Thyon’s chapters, in particular. And while a lot doesn’t seem to be happening on the surface of the plot for the novel’s first half, there’s some excellent planting of elements for later payoff once the plot’s tempo quickens. Small ripples from individual actions wave outward to affect later story developments. It’s masterful writing.
The last third of the novel is, in contrast to the prior parts of the book, very action-packed. Once shit starts to go down, it doesn’t trifle with readers – it really gets serious, with high stakes and believable character reactions. And I won’t spoil things here, but I truly loved Taylor’s commitment to resolving the plot in a way that’s believable but which fits perfectly with the themes and motifs she had established throughout the story.
Thyon Nero was late awakening to the understanding that other people are living lives, too…They had always been minor players in a drama about him, their stories mere subplots woven around his own, and it floored him to experience a sudden shift–as though a script had been shuffled and he’d been handed the wrong pages. He was the minor player now, standing in the settled dust, while Strange flew metal beasts and held dead goddesses in his arms.
Hopefully that quote clues you into who my favorite character in this book was: Thyon “Golden Son You Wouldn’t Even Want to Wipe Your Mouth On” Nero. His character development throughout this book was fucking magnificent, and I am so glad to say my sense that he was one of us (identifying A Fellow Gay) did not disappoint me. I just…I love my prickly son. So much. The dynamic between him and Ruza and Calixte and Tzara made me actively envious of the awesome camaraderie they developed.
I was already fond of Thyon because I’m a difficult person who likes characters with spiky or contrary personalities, but…gosh. I’m at a loss for how to convey how fond of him I was by this story’s end. I don’t want to spoil things, either. I guess I’ll simply say that whether you found Thyon interesting (like me) or annoying in Strange the Dreamer, I think you’ll enjoy his character growth during Muse of Nightmares. I think he might have ended up overtaking Lazlo as my favorite character, which is, honestly, amazing. This book attacked me in my own home and I loved it. 10/10 would be attacked by this book at any time on any day.
Also, I know he’s not the main character in this series, but I totally wouldn’t complain if there was a book centered on him, Ruza, Calixte, and Tzara. Just saying.
Bringing things back around to my original #1 son, rest assured that he was also fantastic in this book.
When Lazlo changed his life, he went with only the clothes on his back…Lazlo’s chances came without warning, and when they did, he didn’t dither, and he didn’t stop to pack.
I really wish I could see more romantic male leads like Lazlo in fiction – any kind of fiction, whether fantasy or historical romance or contemporary or scifi. He is genuinely a soft, caring, kind person full of dreams and hope. Even faced with despair and terrible circumstances, he endeavors to remain compassionate and to do right by others. It physically pains me that Lazlo Strange does not exist in the flesh, because he is a true ray of sunshine who I find infinitely inspiring.
All that said, he doesn’t maintain unrealistic buoyant good humor when faced with absolute horror, and he doesn’t brush it aside or ignore it. What I love about Lazlo is his willingness to look at things earnestly, from multiple angles, thinking about them deeply and with respect. When he fucks up, he owns it. And while the plot of this novel throws oceanic waves of horror and pain at him, he weathers the storm by banding together with others – a beautiful, powerful message for readers.
I mentioned in my review for Strange the Dreamer that Sarai never fully drew me in. While I found her intriguing, some sort of mental distance kept me from fully embracing her character. This novel didn’t at all have that problem, thankfully.
She knew their shames and agonies, their griefs and fears, and she had thought…she had believed…that she knew every horror, and was beyond surprise.
She struggles so deeply with self-doubt and grief and powerlessness and worry in this book, and reading about how she handles those feelings fully grabbed my attention this go ‘round. I loved her conviction to help Minya, not to merely fight her. I loved how even against seemingly-insurmountable odds, Sarai would act and strive if it meant helping those she cares about. I find that incredibly appealing in characters, and Taylor truly created a wonderful and multidimensional heroine in Sarai.
I feel so vindicated by how this book developed Minya. Strange the Dreamer established so much potential for her character, and every time I saw someone discuss how much they loathed her or wanted her to burn, I would mentally ask: but what events shaped her to be so knife-sharp and brittle? Trapped in the body of a child and constantly feeling like her chance to seek some form of twisted justice for the murder of her siblings – the only friends she knew – was escaping her grasp, Minya was already a fascinating character to me.
The Tizerkane looked at children and saw monsters, and Minya’s darkest self rose to the challenge. It was her oldest, truest reflex:
Have an enemy, be an enemy.
I love that Taylor wasn’t content to villainize Minya and have her be a final foe to defeat. No, this book takes the harder tack of humanizing Minya and exploring the trauma that has scarred her. She’s been hell-bent on survival and vengeance for so long, bearing incredible psychological weight, that simply giving up on her mission to bring pain to the humans of Weep isn’t an option. It’s not as easy as telling her or forcing her to stop. Her evolution, along with the growth and understanding gained by the other characters around her, were wonderfully-written.
I’m not going to devote full paragraphs to explaining my fierce love of all the many other characters Taylor wrote, but I’ll list a bit about a few of them.
But he was no longer her husband, not then or ever after. He was Isagol’s broken toy. He could not touch or love her. He couldn’t even weep. She never could stop loving him, though in the worst of times she’d tried.
- Eril-Fane was one of my favorite characters in Strange the Dreamer, and he likewise remained one in Muse of Nightmares. I found his growth both heartbreaking and radiantly affirming. His relationship with Azareen was also my favorite romantic one other than the hints at a possible future one of Thyon Nero’s with a certain character. Yeah, I know Sarai and Lazlo get more page time, but Eril-Fane and Azareen truly stole my heart.
- Kora and Nova’s stories were vivid and heart-wrenching. The opening scenes with them, in particular, were visceral – and maybe a little gory – and unforgettable.
- Calixte and Tzara remained shining jewels of joy in the crown of this tale, and they livened up every scene they were in. I’ll never think of the word cannibalism in the same way.
But the truth has a way of seeping out. The mind can’t erase. It can only conceal, and concealed things are not gone.
As I said at the beginning of my review, to me, Muse of Nightmares is a book whose message is primarily concerned with trauma: how it can reach across time and distance to sow pain, how difficult and overwhelming it can be to grapple with, and how love and the companionship of others can be vitally important in many people’s journey to healing from it. The themes of family – found and otherwise – friendship, romantic love, and learning to humanize and respect people who a society has taught you to fear are all woven with skill into the narrative.
What took this novel to a level above and beyond a good fantasy novel was how characters didn’t merely profess a desire for love or friendship: they embodied that desire through their actions, choices, and efforts. Particularly Lazlo, of course, but his words and actions ripple outward to have a subtle yet powerful cascade of changes on those around him. Small elements from early in the novel (or from the previous one) build toward later effects, and while nothing fits together too neatly, things click into place in ways that feel revelatory.
I know I’m gushing at this point in my review, but y’all, it really was that good.
One last thing
I do have a minor complaint, though, and I only bring it up because I genuinely feel that Laini Taylor could do better about things like this in the future if she was aware of them. For context: I’m a bi/ace nonbinary (demigirl, if you want to really belabor the details) person who generally presents as the gender I was assigned at birth. Other folks’ opinions or reactions to these small things that bother me will likely vary – it was just something that made my own brow wrinkle and led me to highlight the sections in disappointment rather than readerly pleasure. My experiences and perspective color my responses.
The quotes in question:
He just happened to have lips, not to mention the significant anatomical feature that set him apart in this tribe of girls. (22%; location 1536 in ARC doc)
Fertility, sexuality, strength, the ability to create and nurture life: These were the powers of a woman… (20%; location 1346 in ARC doc)
Just…for a series that casually incorporates LGB characters in such a well-handled manner, it made my heart sore to read such cisnormative and trans-exclusionary words. Some women have a penis. Some women can’t have children, even if they are cis. The second quote does thankfully go on to undo some of the harmful language the first portion of it contains, but it still stuck in my craw even hundreds of pages later.
Am I splitting hairs? I don’t know. I still enjoyed the novel enough to gush over it for 2000+ words and then rate it five stars, so I don’t think so. I just wish a sensitivity reader (if there was one) or editor had pointed this out to Taylor during the revision process. The acronym is generally LGBT+ (or LGBTQIAP+), not just LGB. Don’t forget trans and intersex folks.
Despite my above complaint, this was a beautiful, many-layered novel. I can almost picture it as an intricately-wrought nesting box made of the mesarthium Lazlo wields: you open one lid only to find more and more exquisite boxes all tucked away inside of it, waiting to surprise you with their beauty and wonder. If you enjoy fantasy that’s contemplative and character-focused, I highly recommend this novel.
Content warnings: death, war, mentions of past rape, rape, slavery, human trafficking, suicide, PSTD, parental abuse, child abuse, sexual content, torture, graphic violence.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Little, Brown Publishing for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from a pre-release copy and may be subject to change in the final published version.
What did you think about this book, if you’ve read it?