This review’s going to be long and winding and very extra. This book made my dessicated husk of a heart feel things, okay?
If you just want the tl;dr version of my opinions, here you go:
Strange the Dreamer is an intricate novel that I both loved and was annoyed by. Some of its greatest strengths, the prose and the characters, are fundamentally tied to what I viewed as its weaknesses: the uneven, often meandering pacing; and the plot, especially the plot developments at the end.
If you’re still interested, though, I have more thoughts (maybe too many?) on this beautiful, messy beast of a book.
When I was about 19 and a freshly-minted vegan, I decided I’d experiment with making some brownies. By that point in my kitchen adventures, I knew that I far preferred baking to cooking – thanks to my incurable sweet tooth – and I wanted to branch out from the cookies, cupcakes, and sweet breads I’d made. So, when I found a recipe for black bean brownies, my first thought was something like “what the hell?” and my second thought was “challenge accepted.”
The brownies came out of the oven looking and smelling wonderful: dense and rich and chocolatey, with a surprisingly soft, almost cake-like texture. I couldn’t at all tell by looking at the brownies that there were beans hidden in there. I let the brownies cool enough to cut them into squares with a puny plastic knife, set them out on some wax paper, and, curious and excited to taste them, bit into one.
Now, to pause for a moment with me here: I’m sure someone out there in the world of vegan baking has managed to sneak beans into their baked goods successfully. Someone far more skilled than me, obviously, but that’s neither here nor there (and also a pretty low bar, admittedly). I have no doubt that at some point, the universe has been graced with delectable, perfectly-crafted bean brownies that would put a smile on even the most cynical of food critics’ faces and fool the unwitting taste-tester into thinking they’re normal brownies.
Unfortunately, my brownies were nothing like those. Despite looking and smelling great, they tasted like…beans. Just chocolatey beans, and maybe some sugar and vanilla. So not terrible, per say. Not a crime against humanity. In fact, if I had tuned out the odd texture and if I had managed to pretend the beany taste was just a quirk of the flour, maybe I could have pretended they were just good brownies. But no: there was the odd texture, the earthy flavor.
Mostly, as I chewed the brownies that day, I regretted my life choices and wondered where I had gone wrong. Was it in how I mixed the batter? Did I measure an ingredient wrong? Or had my black bean brownie journey simply been doomed from the start?
Strange the Dreamer – in my opinion – is the book equivalent to those brownies of mine. On the surface, it’s a beautiful and enticing work of fiction, with vivid imagery and striking settings, characters, and worldbuilding elements. But once I bit into it, so to speak, some of it ended up crumbly and weird and not really satisfying, despite the separately tasty ingredients. The disparate parts didn’t all bind together well.
Yeah, it’s apparently time for me to not be an unconditional fan of a popular fave…again. And before I get into the reasoning behind my mixed feelings, let me just say that I totally get why people would love Strange the Dreamer. I think Laini Taylor is one of the most inventive authors out there in YA fantasy right now, and her prose is a joy to read. I don’t begrudge anyone for wholeheartedly loving Strange the Dreamer — I certainly wish I did. There were just a few too many things in this novel that tripped me up and dumped me off the hype train, leaving me behind in the dust with a vague sense that I messed up somewhere along the line.
Are we good? Okay, here goes nothing.
First off, I need to acknowledge that I began reading this book in April.
It is now the end of June of 2018. Let that fact sink in. Maybe marinate in it a bit. Soak it up like a spongy bean brownie in a puddle of soy milk. (Sorry.)
You could even say that this book kicked off what ended up being, for me, The Great Reading Slump of 2017. I made it through the opening sections of the book, all the way to about page 200, and then…I just couldn’t go on. The motivation just wasn’t there. And now that I’ve finished Strange the Dreamer and both enjoyed and disliked it, I feel that I can say with fairness that the pacing of the novel, especially in the first half, is the weakest thing about it.
But I’ll get to that later. First, I’m gonna cover a few things I loved about this complicated hot mess of a book:
Lazlo “the sweetest Soft Boy you ever did meet” Strange. My heart, my second heart, mon petit chouchou. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten this attached to a male character in YA fiction, but lord help me, Lazlo will forever occupy a corner of my heart now. In fact, the main reason this book has this many stars is due this wonderful ray of sunshine.
What’s so good about him, you say? Here’s a select few things I liked about him:
➼ Do you like to read? Are you, in fact reading something right now? Your boy Lazlo can relate. Or – guess what – you might even find him #relatable. Okay, to be serious, this aspect of Lazlo may not resonate with absolutely everyone. His pure, contagious joy in discovering imagined or fantastic worlds contained within stories really clicked with me, though.
➼ Coupled with his love of reading and of fantastic worlds is his desire to discover, explore, and learn. To quest and seek and yearn. This aspect of Lazlo was conveyed and developed beautifully, and I felt that some of the best passages in the novel explored it:
He had a trio of fears that sat in his gut like sallowed teeth, and when he was too quiet with his own thoughts, they’d grind together to gnaw at him from within. This was the first: that he would never see further proof of magic.
The second: that he would never find out what had happened in Weep.
The third: that he would always be alone as he was now.
So he hoped, so he dreamed: that, in the course of time, grain by grain, the gray would give way to the dream and the sands of his life would run bright.
➼ Lazlo is also, somehow, despite all the struggles of his early life, believably kind and good. I’m often weak for morally-grey or conflicted or angsty characters, but Lazlo, despite often seeming Too Pure for This World™, has enough weightiness to his dreamy presence that it worked. Yeah, he’s a bit…chosen-one-y, and definitely special in a way that fantasy novel protagonists often are, but it worked for me because of the tender and thoughtful way that Laini Taylor depicts him.
Characters-wise, I didn’t only like Lazlo, of course. I just loved him the absolute most. To keep this section of my review from going on too long, I’ll simply list a few aspects of other characters that I liked (or maybe didn’t like as much):
➼ Sarai: oh, Sarai. It took me a while to warm up to her. In fact, the first time I read the novel, the point at which Sarai and the other godspawn are introduced is the point at which I quit reading. Now that I’ve read the whole novel, I’m still conflicted. Intellectually, I like her. Emotionally, I didn’t fully click with her, and wasn’t ever fully invested in her character – which makes me feel like a jerk, but it’s still how I feel. It’s kind of like: she seems really cool – awesome title (“muse of nightmares” is pretty fierce-sounding, you’ve got to admit), creative magical abilities – but an intriguing surface and badass-sounding title does not a wonderful character make. I’m interested to see if I bond with her more in Muse of Nightmares.
➼ Calixte: gosh, I hope this wonderful, mischievous sapphic daredevil has a large presence in the second book. While she didn’t feel quite as fleshed-out as some of the other characters, I was intensely fond of her.
➼ The Blue Crew: Ruby, Sparrow, Feral, and Minya – all interesting, all magical, all blue. All just the teensy bit flat (to me, at least). I admit to being the most fond of Sparrow, and to hoping that all of them get more time for development at the forefront of the next novel.
➼ Eril-Fane. Gimme a perfect golden hero, and I’ll raise you the complicated and first-glance-defying survivor known as the savior of Weep. I can’t wait to see where he goes as this story continues.
➼ The setting. Yeah, setting as character, and all that jazz. I was honestly more invested in the intricacies and the complicated history of The Unseen City (and, tbqh, Zosma as well) than all the godspawn combined. The sheer creativity of this world and how it’s been developed is worth another star’s value in my rating of this book.
Finally, to close out the section on characters, I’ll say that despite my griping about Sarai and the godspawn, writing characters and their inner worlds seems to be one of Laini Taylor’s strengths. Even characters who only appeared here and there had distinct voices and personalities. If character-driven stories make you tick, you’ll probably fall in love with her work.
Next up on the list of things I loved is the prose. Now, I tied into my enjoyment of the prose’s ornate and detailed craft is my frustration with the pacing of the novel. But gosh, this novel is quotable. If you go through a book with an eye for highlighting favorite passages or especially lyrical, poetic turns of phrase, you’re gonna have a great time with Strange the Dreamer. Somehow, Laini Taylor continuously finds inventive and vivid ways to describe anything from the dust on a weathered old book to the splay of lashes on a person’s cheek. I would bet money that she could describe doing your taxes with such beauty that it’d sound like a tender sonnet to a lover. The prose here definitely toes the line between lyrical and florid, but in my opinion, it doesn’t cross over into being cloying. It also works well with the tone and themes of the story being told.
So far I’ve praised the novel a lot, right? Why, then, did I go to the trouble earlier to compare it to a misguided experiment with baking black bean brownies, of all things? Well, stay tuned if you want to read about the things I didn’t like, with the caveat that this section will be a spoiler-palooza.
Plot and pacing may not matter to me as much as some readers. In fact, I usually consider myself a fan of character-driven works. The pacing in Strange the Dreamer is so bad that it made me reevaluate that. The problem is, while it’s character-focued, I don’t feel it’s quite right to say that this novel is fully character-driven. In many cases, it felt more like a series of events happened to the characters rather than the characters themselves taking action, especially in the second half of the novel.
Let’s back up. The first half of the novel progresses very, very slowly. We’re introduced to some things that are strange and shocking in the prologue: a blue-skinned girl, her horrible death, her ghost. After that, the focus wheels away to center on Lazlo, who seems more (relatively speaking) normal-fantasy-protagonist in his status as a misfit orphan. And as much as I gushed about Lazlo earlier, this part of the novel tested my endurance and patience. It often lulled me almost to sleeping, despite the beautiful prose. This wasn’t as much a problem once the story begins to progress in Weep, but there were still hints of that drowsy pacing here and there.
Due to the slow pacing for the first 200 pages, there’s a bit of dissonance between the first and second parts of the book that, despite frustrating me, also fascinate me. Like, they almost feel like different books, and reading the acknowledgements at the end, I can kind of see why:
To the teams at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Hodder & Stoughton, who didn’t bat an eye when this supposed stand-alone mutated into a duology, and changed main character and title.
I’m interested to see if the second book is stronger for being the story that was perhaps as it was originally intended to be told (though that is, of course, super speculative for me to say).
Now, to address the plot: it was…okay, for the most part. Not my favorite. The ending, though, almost ruined the whole book for me. I disliked it that much. It was contrived and frustrating and, once again, paced badly. To really discuss why I feel this way about it, I’m gonna get into spoiler territory.
Seriously. Don’t want spoilers? Skip the rest of this review and read the book.
Lazlo’s choice to not only let Minya bring Sarai back but to then be taken aback that the girl who enslaves ghosts is now going to use Sarai as a pawn – Sarai, whose relationship with Minya was already strained – was completely unbelievable for me. It also rang as super selfish, and not in a this-is-a-three-dimensional-flawed-character way. It also tore apart my suspension of disbelief. Yeah, it’s fantasy. Yeah, it’s Laini Taylor, and she often writes insta-love-like romances. But Lazlo being so infatuated with Sarai that he is unwilling to simply mourn her passing, instead dooming her to a miserable existence as Minya’s servant, made the preceding 500 pages of development in the novel feel as though all the meaning and development simply evaporated. And for what? Some angst in the second novel? To keep Lazlo and Sarai’s love a forbidden one?
The other godspawn made the scene even worse for me. They just stood there and did nothing. Said nothing, not a peep, as Minya bound Sarai. Cool. Why are they even in that scene? To look sadly at Lazlo? Set dressing?
I also felt weirdly uninvested in the romance between Sarai and Lazlo. I don’t mind a book that focuses on romance – I read plently of romance or romance-centric fantasy, and it can be done well. I didn’t fully buy into it here, though. The telling of it was beautifully romantic but was lacking in substance. They’re both misfits. They like wondrous things. How…not unique? I saw between the two characters the potential for a beautiful love story, but it was rushed far, far too much for me to enjoy its development. It didn’t feel compelling. If anything, it felt alienating. There were so many other ways for Taylor to create conflict in this story than by centering it all on the romance.
To tie in my gripes about the romance with my plot-related complaints, I feel like this world and these characters lent the story a potential to be big – on a magical, even cosmic scale. Maybe if my attention hadn’t been grabbed so thoroughly by the setting, I wouldn’t be this disappointed at the direction it seems the story is taking. It felt to me that so many interesting elements were introduced – Zosma politics! alchemy! the Tizerkane VS. the godspawn! – simply to not really matter in the end.
I’m worried I’m going to get incoherent here, so if you’re interested in more plot criticism, go read this review that articulates a lot of my issues with how Strange the Dreamer was written.
In the end, I guess the fact that this book made me feel so much – even if it’s frustration – is a mark in its favor. It was certainly an unforgettable reading experience, even if it look me over a year to actually reach the last page. I certainly prefer being impassioned by a story to being indifferent to one. Maybe, unlike me, the plot or pacing won’t bother you. If that’s the case, I think you’ll love this strange and lyrical book, and I hope you fall in love with its beauty and peculiarity.
For me, though, the reading experience was worth a conflicted 3.5 stars.