The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
336pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.13/5
 

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first book in the Winternight trilogy, is Slavic-folklore-inspired historical fantasy set in northern Rus’ during the fourteenth century. This phenomenal book has made quite a mark since its publication early this year: it was a Goodreads Choice Award finalist in both the Best Fantasy and Debut Author categories, Amazon selected it as the best science fiction and fantasy book of 2017, and it has begun appearing on numerous best of the year lists (which I am confident will include my own since, even though very little of 2017 is left, it’s still one of my two favorite new releases!).

Though The Bear and the Nightingale is primarily Vasilisa’s story, it begins before her birth, soon after her mother realizes a fifth child will be joining their family. When she tells her husband the news, she also tells him that their next child will be a girl with the gifts of her own mother, a mysterious woman whose grace and beauty captured the heart and hand of the Grand Prince of Moscow—and who was rumored to be a witch.

Vasya’s mother does not survive childbirth, and for years, the grieving lord never so much as thinks of remarrying. However, after six-year-old Vasya becomes lost in the woods and is found insisting that she saw a gnarled old tree and a one-eyed man that are nowhere to be found, one of her older brothers convinces their father that a wild girl like she must have a mother. He travels to Moscow in search of a wife and returns wed to another Grand Prince’s daughter, a religious young woman named Anna who had hoped to spend the rest of her days in a convent: for only within the walls of a church can she hide from the devils.

Like Vasya, Anna has the second sight, which allows her to see the domovoi and other spirits. While Vasya accepts them as a part of her world and befriends them, her frightened stepmother does all that she can to avoid them. Anna’s only comfort can be found in the teachings of a charismatic young priest from Moscow, who further instills terror of the old ways into the people of the village—who also come to fear Vasya herself, not realizing that her unique sight may be all that can save them…

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book I read in 2017, and as the year nears its end, it’s still one of the very best books I read this year. It’s taken me a long time to review this one simply because I don’t believe I can adequately describe this gem of a novel and all that it encompasses. The writing is lovely: it’s not dense, yet the smallest of details bring to life both the real-world setting of the wintry wilderness and the fairy tale aspects of the book with its spirits and Morozko the frost-demon. It’s about many things, especially family and humanity, and it follows a heroine who refuses to be anything but who she is on her journey from childhood into young adulthood—but most of all, I appreciate Katherine Arden’s mature approach to ideas that are often portrayed as clearly black and white and how she further enhanced this by making even the least sympathetic of her characters understandable.

From the plot description, it may sound as though this is yet another novel about the evils of organized religion and Christianity in particular. Though it does acknowledge atrocities done by the Church and focus on the conflict between Christianity and the older ways with a lot of empathy for those who held to the latter, I also didn’t read it as being completely anti-religion. One of the more compelling characters is Vasya’s older brother, Sasha, a pious young man who also struggles to carve his own path against his father’s wishes. When he accompanies his father to Moscow, Sasha travels to meet a monk reputed to be a humble servant rather than obsessed with wealth and position, and he decides to become a monk as well—even though this decision causes a rift between him and his father. Showing some earnest men of faith allows Father Konstantin to stand on his own as a flawed representative of the Church rather than a representative of all of Christianity. Additionally, Vasya herself never seems to be rebelling against their religion: she doesn’t appear to have an issue with it coexisting alongside the spirits she sees.

In general, Vasya doesn’t come across as particularly rebellious or mischievous but simply someone who remains steadfastly who she is despite society’s disapproval. She loves to be outdoors, she enjoys horseback riding (and is more interested in fine lord’s horses than fine lords themselves), and she sees no reason to meekly lower her eyes as is expected of good Christian girls. Though she’s uniquely special and the only one in her household to reject feminine norms, it never seems as though she’s supposed to be superior to girls who choose otherwise. Vasya cares for her two sisters, and just as she accepts herself, she accepts them for who they are.

I found it incredibly refreshing to read about a heroine who did not doubt herself even though many others did, as well as one who had a caring relationship with her half-sister despite her stepmother’s constant attempts to make Vasya feel inferior to her own daughter. The sibling relationships are especially wonderful and are one of my favorite parts of the story, especially the closeness between Vasya and her youngest brother, Alyosha. They basically grew up together since Alyosha is only three years older than Vasya, and he is the one who best understands her and stands up for her the most.

The most villainous characters (other than the main mythical villain) are not particularly likable but they’re very human. Anna is terrible to Vasya, and it was clear that much of this was coming from a place of terror and unhappiness. She was forced into a marriage she didn’t want, and Vasya is a constant reminder of the frightening ‘devils’ she tries to escape from as much as possible. Though Father Konstantin is not at all sympathetic since he brings most of his problems upon himself, the pride, self-loathing, and shame that drive him are palpable.

The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent in nearly every way, but it is slower paced and somewhat meandering. The pacing didn’t especially bother me since it was an absorbing tale regardless, plus it was stronger because of the extra insight into the different characters. However, I did feel that it took a long time to build up to the bigger folktale-related conflict that was the meat of the plot and that the climax was over rather quickly in comparison to the rest.

It’s no wonder that The Bear and the Nightingale is commonly being lauded as one of the best books of the year: it’s absolutely magical. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and the beautiful writing and characterization work together to create a subtly different type of book. The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredible novel, especially astonishing considering it is the author’s debut. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next in the newly released sequel, The Girl in the Tower, and the conclusion, The Winter of the Witch (coming in August 2018).

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read the First 50 Pages from The Bear and the Nightingale on Unbound Worlds

Read Katherine Arden’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Heroines

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Last week’s mail brought several books that sound quite interesting, and in case you missed it, my review of Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence also went up last week. It’s my favorite 2017 release so far with its compelling and unreliable main protagonist, plus it has other wonderful qualities and badass nuns!

Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Markswoman (Asiana #1) by Rati Mehrotra

This debut novel will be available on January 23, 2018 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

Rati Mehrotra shared a little about the Asiana duology’s origins on her website:

Reading about Kali some years ago, an idea began to form in my head. What if there was a group of women devoted to her worship, women who wielded the power of life and death over others in a post-apocalyptic world? Thus was the Asiana cycle born.

This sounds rather intriguing, and the book description had me from the very beginning with “an order of magical-knife wielding female assassins.”

 

An order of magical-knife wielding female assassins brings both peace and chaos to their post-apocalyptic world in this bewitching blend of science fiction and epic fantasy—the first entry in a debut duology that displays the inventiveness of the works of Sarah Beth Durst and Marie Lu.

Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, a highly trained sisterhood of elite warriors armed with telepathic blades. Guided by a strict code of conduct, Kyra and the other Orders are sworn to protect the people of Asiana. But to be a Markswoman, an acolyte must repudiate her former life completely. Kyra has pledged to do so, yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her dead family.

When Kyra’s beloved mentor dies in mysterious circumstances, and Tamsyn, the powerful, dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. Using one of the strange Transport Hubs that are remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past, she finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a young, disillusioned Marksman whom she soon befriends.

Kyra is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof. And if she fails to find it, fails in her quest to keep her beloved Order from following Tamsyn down a dark path, it could spell the beginning of the end for Kyra—and for Asiana.

But what she doesn’t realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is razor thin . . . thin as the blade of a knife.

The Two of Swords: Volume 1 by K. J. Parker The Two of Swords: Volume 2 by K. J. Parker The Two of Swords: Volume 3 by K. J. Parker

The Two of Swords (Volumes #1–3) by K. J. Parker

World Fantasy Awardwinning author K. J. Parker’s The Two of Swords, which was released digitally in serialized installments beginning in 2015, is being published in three books available in trade paperback and ebook. Volumes One and Two were released in October and November, respectively, and the concluding volume will be on sale on December 12 (Tuesday!).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Two of Swords: Volume One.

 

“Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it’s better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings,” he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, “mostly from force of habit.”

A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no one knows how it will end.

The Two of Swords is the story of a war on a grand scale, told through the eyes of its soldiers, politicians, victims and heroes.

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer

The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota #3) by Ada Palmer

The third novel in the Terra Ignota quartet will be released on December 19 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The first novel in this science fiction series, Too Like the Lightning, won the Compton Crook Award and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and Ada Palmer won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Tor.com has excerpts from the first two novels, and the Tor-Forge blog has an excerpt from the third:

  1. Too Like the Lightning
  2. Seven Surrenders
  3. The Will to Battle
 

The Will to Battlethe third book of 2017 John W. Campbell Award winner Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota seriesa political science fiction epic of extraordinary audacity

“A cornucopia of dazzling, sharp ideas set in rich, wry prose that rewards rumination with layers of delight. Provocative, erudite, inventive, resplendent.” ―Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings

The long years of near-utopia have come to an abrupt end.

Peace and order are now figments of the past. Corruption, deception, and insurgency hum within the once steadfast leadership of the Hives, nations without fixed location.

The heartbreaking truth is that for decades, even centuries, the leaders of the great Hives bought the world’s stability with a trickle of secret murders, mathematically planned. So that no faction could ever dominate. So that the balance held.

The Hives’ façade of solidity is the only hope they have for maintaining a semblance of order, for preventing the public from succumbing to the savagery and bloodlust of wars past. But as the great secret becomes more and more widely known, that facade is slipping away.

Just days earlier, the world was a pinnacle of human civilization. Now everyone―Hives and hiveless, Utopians and sensayers, emperors and the downtrodden, warriors and saints―scrambles to prepare for the seemingly inevitable war.

Seven Surrenders veers expertly between love, murder, mayhem, parenthood, theology, and high politics. I haven’t had this much fun with a book in a long time.” ―Max Gladstone, author of Three Parts Dead

International bestselling author Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, Red Sister, is the first installment in the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, which is set in a new world unrelated to his two previously published trilogies. It follows Nona, a young girl with a turbulent past, as she trains in a convent after having been found on the brink of being hanged for murder. It’s both very familiar and yet a little different, particularly in its approach to conventional tropes, and I was completed immersed in it largely because of this compelling main character and her obvious unreliability.

By saving her friend Saida, Nona condemned them both. The two children, each of whom strongly exhibited one of the four traits of the old tribes, had both been sold to a man who kept fighters, but they were assigned chores in lieu of training until they were old enough for their potential gifts to fully manifest. One day, Nona heard screams coming from the warrior’s room Saida was cleaning and rushed to the scene to find the giant man holding her friend off the floor by one of her arms, apparently having lost his temper over a broken vase. After he ignored Nona’s cries to stop hurting the other girl, she slit his throat—and would have killed him had his father not been a ridiculously rich nobleman who could afford the powerful magic necessary to keep him alive.

Nona may have succeeded in rescuing her friend from the fighter, but she was not able to rescue either of them from their resulting death sentence. Saida is hanged first, but Nona is rescued shortly before her own hanging. Abbess Glass of the Convent of Sweet Mercy believes Nona has the fiery spirit of a Red Sister, a warrior who serves the Ancestor through combat, and uses her position—along with a bit of deception—to free Nona and make her a novice.

At the convent, Nona begins taking classes with other girls around nine years of age. There, they are not just educated in subjects such as reading, writing, history, and religion but also fighting, poisons, and magical arts. Though Nona finds friends and belonging at Sweet Mercy, her place at the convent is threatened by those who will not forgive her near-murder of a nobleman—and Nona will never truly feel like she belongs anywhere as long as she will not forgive herself the secrets of her past that led to her mother giving her away in the first place.

Red Sister is not the smartest, most unique, or most elegantly written book I’ve read this year (though it is well-written with some interesting touches), but it is certainly the most engaging new book I’ve read this year. It’s the one that made me become the most invested in the main character and her story, plus it features sharp dialogue, characters with personality, some mystery, a focus on friendship, and badass nuns—and it’s not just my favorite 2017 release so far but also my favorite book read for the first time this year.

Though it has multiple wonderful qualities, I found the highlight of Red Sister to be Nona herself. From the very beginning, she’s a compelling character, a young girl who was nearly hanged for murder and whose dear friend was hanged for a murder she did not commit, and her fierceness, loyalty, and drive to protect her friends leaps from the page. Despite being rather up-front and honest about many of her thoughts—she has no qualms about chastising Abbess Glass for saving her but not Saida or letting the most zealous of nuns know that she doesn’t think all that highly of the Ancestor—Nona is secretive about her past. When she’s asked to tell the tale of how she came to the convent, it’s clear that she’s not being entirely truthful and she also has a tendency to downplay her capabilities stemming from this incident, leaving one to wonder what so terrifies this otherwise fearless girl. The third person narrative does not delve into Nona’s every thought so this is kept from the reader as well, and Nona’s perspective in general can be rather misleading, especially in the first half when she’s around nine years old. She does not always reach the correct conclusions, and (I suspect because she herself doesn’t mince words in most cases) she does often take people’s words at face value when she shouldn’t.

The other characters and Nona’s relationships with them are also captivating. The second part of the book focuses on Nona and her friends when they’re around the age of young teens, and Nona’s relationships are not stagnant as she sometimes realizes she was wrong about people. Her friendships (especially the one with Hessa) and their dialogue was wonderful, even if I did find a couple of her less prominent friends interchangeable, but the best characters besides Nona are the nuns. Abbess Glass is politically minded and practical and encourages Nona to speak her mind to her even if she is being blasphemous, though she does discourage her from doing so in front of one of the more devoted nuns who despises Nona. Sister Kettle is kind and her girlfriend, Sister Apple, can be kind as well—but not when she’s in her role as Mistress Shade, the teacher whom the students understandably consider to be the worst, largely due to her habit of poisoning students with non-lethal (yet nevertheless unpleasant) substances.

Though there are certainly other parts to the story, most of the tale takes place in the convent and a fair amount of time is spent on classes and training. Blade (combat) and Shade are rather intriguing subjects, and I really appreciated that despite Nona’s heightened speed (unusually fast even for those with this particular trait) and natural ability with the former, she still has to work to improve. She isn’t automatically the best at every weapon or the first student to pick up a particular skill, and sometimes she has to find her own way since the nuns’ teaching methods don’t always apply to her as an individual.

Those lessons are often related to character development and showing that there’s more to Nona than she’s letting on, but some of Nona’s lessons are mainly a vehicle for exposition about the convent or the world as a whole. At times, this slowed down the pacing, but I didn’t find it to be a huge issue since the dialogue showed personality instead of being dull and rote, plus the world is interesting. Most of the planet is covered in ice, and the convent is on a narrow strip near the equator that is not frozen due to technology set up long ago. The descendants of the four tribes whose ships landed on this dying world sometimes possess one of the four primary traits of the tribe—or maybe two or even three, in extremely rare cases—to varying degrees, and many believe a prophecy that a four-blood Chosen One will save them all. There are some twists regarding the truth behind this prophecy throughout the novel, and it seems unlikely that it will follow a predictable course.

In addition to the puzzles surrounding Nona’s past and the prophecy, there’s also some mystery due to a second storyline introduced in the prologue. It’s not immediately clear how it relates to Nona’s story, but it does clearly illustrate just how powerful a Red Sister is from the very first gripping paragraph:

 

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

About halfway through the book, this thread is continued in an interlude, and at that point, enough information has been supplied to begin piecing it together. The big picture is more apparent when it concludes with the epilogue, though there are still questions involving the details left for the rest of the trilogy to address.

Red Sister is a fantastic book built around a fascinating main protagonist who is all the more captivating due to her reticence about her past and abilities. It can be harsh and violent given that it’s about a fighter-in-training with some bloodthirsty tendencies who has already killed and lost a friend to injustice (and the ending is especially bloody), but it’s not overly grim in tone. Friendship is a precious gift to Nona, who is loyal to a fault and is not in the habit of drawing blood unless she is defending herself or others, and there’s enough light throughout the darkness to keep it from becoming a slog of bleakness. I absolutely loved it, and there is no 2018 release I’m more excited for than Grey Sister.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Red Sister

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

It’s been a few weeks since there were any new arrivals, but a couple of upcoming books came in the mail last week including one I’m very excited about!

In case you missed it, the latest review covers one of my three favorite 2017 releases so far: Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer. I have a review of another of my three favorite 2017 releases nearly finished that I’m hoping to post within the next couple of days.

Now, the latest books…

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2) by Katherine Arden

This sequel to Katherine Arden’s phenomenal debut novel released earlier this year, The Bear and the Nightingale, will be on sale on December 5 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The third book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, is scheduled for publication in August 2018.

The Bear and the Nightingale has received a lot of acclaim this year: Amazon selected it as the best science fiction and fantasy book of the year, and it’s also a Goodreads Choice Award Best Fantasy finalist as well as a Goodreads Choice Award Best Debut finalist (the winners have not yet been announced). The praise is well deserved, as it’s an enchanting, atmospheric, beautifully written story with a wonderful heroine. If you missed it in April, Katherine Arden wrote about her heroine’s origins for this year’s Women in SF&F Month.

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from the first book and a “look inside” feature for the first two Winternight books:

  1. The Bear and the Nightingale
  2. The Girl in the Tower

Katherine Arden will be on tour for the release of The Girl in the Tower. The first two events will be taking place at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, on December 6 and Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, on December 11. She’s also scheduled to be in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Texas throughout January. Keep an eye on the author’s Facebook events page and Twitter for more tour events!

 

A remarkable young woman blazes her own trail, from the backwoods of Russia to the court of Moscow, in the exhilarating sequel to Katherine Arden’s bestselling debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale.

Katherine Arden’s enchanting first novel introduced readers to an irresistible heroine. Vasilisa has grown up at the edge of a Russian wilderness, where snowdrifts reach the eaves of her family’s wooden house and there is truth in the fairy tales told around the fire. Vasilisa’s gift for seeing what others do not won her the attention of Morozko—Frost, the winter demon from the stories—and together they saved her people from destruction. But Frost’s aid comes at a cost, and her people have condemned her as a witch.

Now Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, the only options left for her are marriage or the convent. She cannot bring herself to accept either fate and instead chooses adventure, dressing herself as a boy and setting off astride her magnificent stallion Solovey.

But after Vasilisa prevails in a skirmish with bandits, everything changes. The Grand Prince of Moscow anoints her a hero for her exploits, and she is reunited with her beloved sister and brother, who are now part of the Grand Prince’s inner circle. She dares not reveal to the court that she is a girl, for if her deception were discovered it would have terrible consequences for herself and her family. Before she can untangle herself from Moscow’s intrigues—and as Frost provides counsel that may or may not be trustworthy—she will also confront an even graver threat lying in wait for all of Moscow itself.

Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

This standalone fantasy novel will be released on March 6, 2018 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

 

The acclaimed authors of The Map of Moments and The Secret Journeys of Jack London join creative forces once more in this epic, standalone novel—an exciting dark fantasy of gods and mortals, fools and heroes, saviors and destroyers with a brilliant beam of hope at its core–that should more than appeal to readers of N.K. Jemisin and Brandon Sanderson.

In the great kingdom of Quandis, everyone is a slave. Some are slaves to the gods. Most are slaves to everyone else.

Blessed by the gods with lives of comfort and splendor, the royal elite routinely perform their duties, yet some chafe at their role. A young woman of stunning ambition, Princess Phela refuses to allow a few obstacles—including her mother the queen and her brother, the heir apparent—stand in the way of claiming ultimate power and glory for herself.

Far below the royals are the Bajuman. Poor and oppressed, members of this wretched caste have but two paths out of servitude: the priesthood . . . or death.

Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. But Princess Phela’s desire for power will disrupt the realm’s order, setting into motion a series of events that will end with her becoming a goddess in her own right . . . or ultimately destroying Quandis and all its inhabitants.

Strange the Dreamer
by Laini Taylor
544pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.2/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.39/5
 

New York Times bestselling author Laini Taylor’s latest novel, Strange the Dreamer, is the first half of a YA fantasy duology that will conclude with The Muse of Nightmares. Laini Taylor has been on my list of authors I will read anything by since I was enchanted by her Dreamdark books, particularly Silksinger, and her exquisitely written novella collection Lips Touch: Three Times, a National Book Award finalist. Her stories are exceptional due to her fantastic imagination and characters, but her biggest strength is her writing: the way she writes dialogue and camaraderie between characters, and most of all, her lovely prose. Like her other books, Strange the Dreamer contains all these wonderful qualities, though I didn’t love it quite as much as expected in the end due to some pacing problems later in the novel—but even so, it’s still excellent and one of my three favorite 2017 releases I’ve read.

Orphaned Lazlo Strange was always a dreamer, and his dream of visiting the Unseen City began because of his monastic upbringing, namely an old monk whose fanciful tales of this place ignited his imagination. Though no foreigner who bravely crossed the desert into this city ever returned to tell of it, the caravans that came from it were filled with impressive riches and marvels. However, there’s more to the mystery of the city than simply not knowing what it was like to visit: none of its inhabitants have been seen or heard from since the caravans suddenly stopped coming two hundred years ago.

Curious as it was, perhaps Lazlo would not have remained obsessed with the city throughout his childhood and young adulthood had he not felt magic oust its true name from his mind. When five-year-old Lazlo was (as he often did) pretending to fight as one of the fierce legendary warriors of the Unseen City, he yelled the name of the city—but found the name he’d known just moments ago lost from memory with only “Weep” left in its place. From that day forward, the true name of the city was forgotten by all with only “Weep” remaining, and the boy who never knew his own true name—if he even had one when found as a sickly infant—was haunted by having a second name taken from him.

Fifteen years after this incident, an entourage from the Unseen City arrives in Lazlo’s own city. Their leader, a warrior known as the Godslayer, has been traveling the land in search of people with various skills who may be able to aid his people. Much of their own knowledge was lost when their library was destroyed two hundred years before, and there is one large problem they’ve been unable to solve on their own. Any who are selected and choose to accompany them will be well rewarded in return, and anyone who can actually find a solution for them will be greatly rewarded—but, like so much involving the Unseen City, the circumstances that brought them there remain a mystery since the Godslayer would rather show them their issue than try to explain.

Lazlo may not be an inventor or alchemist, but he is a librarian who has collected every piece of information he can find on the Unseen City, and this knowledge earns him a place as the Godslayer’s secretary. He will finally fulfill his lifelong desire to visit the city and learn the truth behind its mysteries, and he’ll discover tragedy and even more mysteries stemming from his dreams of a deceased goddess—before he even knows what she looked like or even that she once existed. There is more behind the Unseen City’s problem than the Godslayer thought…

Strange the Dreamer is a wonderful book, and I found myself captivated from the very first page. The brief prologue is elegantly written, tragic, and mysterious, perfectly setting the stage for what’s to come, and I was immediately intrigued by Lazlo and the curiosities related to the Unseen City that so piqued his interest. There is so much done very well in this novel—the world, the characters, the writing, the gradual unraveling of the mysteries, and the journey to the inevitable conclusion—and I would have absolutely loved it if it hadn’t lagged at times.

Though the individual elements of the story are not necessarily unique, Laini Taylor’s voice and the way she combines these disparate pieces make for a unique whole despite being somewhat reminiscent of her other work. Her writing is beautiful, witty, and wise, and though there is trauma and darkness, there’s enough light and occasional humor to prevent it from becoming unbearably grim. Make no mistake: the Unseen City’s history is tragic, and everyone within it still carries scars from the past. The Godslayer is a broken man who saved himself and his people, but he’s tormented by the line he crossed in doing so.  Of those who were wronged years ago, there’s a variety of individual responses ranging from focusing on other parts of life, being consumed by hatred and vengeance, and understanding the terror that drove the others to such lengths even though forgiveness is not possible.

Before it reveals the bleaker parts, most of the focus is on a kindhearted librarian that most dismiss as being too interested in frivolous tales. I found it impossible not to love Lazlo, who “couldn’t have belonged at the library more truly if he were a book himself” (page 16). Of course, I’m often drawn to bibliophile characters with curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, but Lazlo also has an unusually good heart and the rather baffling (to some) quality of going out of his way to help others without expecting anything in return. However, Lazlo is not the only main protagonist, though I’m hesitant to say too much about the other, Sarai, since she is more closely tied to the mysteries of the Unseen City and is not introduced until nearly 100 pages into the novel. Part of the fun of reading this book is that so much is gradually revealed so I’ll just say that I thought Sarai was a great character as well and had a lot of sympathy for her. Though I enjoyed Lazlo’s story more, Sarai is a more vividly developed character.

There is a romance between them that falls into the category of being instalove, but it didn’t bother me in this particular case because I did not feel that it was being used as a replacement for actually developing their relationship. Though it does happen quickly, there are reasons for Lazlo and Sarai to be drawn to each other, and I thought the progression of their relationship seemed realistic and natural for two people in their circumstances. However, I did feel that the amount of internal monologue dedicated to their thoughts and feelings about each other became excessive in the second half. It seemed true to the beginning of a budding romance, but for me personally, it bogged down an otherwise excellent book.

Although I did find it a little dull at times for awhile, it did pick up again as it neared the end. The conclusion was not surprising, but I didn’t get the impression it was intended to be a shock given the prologue and the other clues leading up to it. I rather enjoyed being thrown into the deep end in the beginning and then gradually being shown the bigger picture the more I read.

Strange the Dreamer is a fantastic novel, just as I’ve come to expect from Laini Taylor. The story and themes involving conflict and its aftermath are thoughtfully handled, the characters are rich, and the writing is gorgeous. Unfortunately, there are some slower-moving parts that prevent the novel from living up to its full potential, but that’s not a huge issue—it just means it’s one of my favorite books of the year instead of my very favorite!

My Rating: 8.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from Strange the Dreamer

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

It’s been a little while since the last one of these posts, but here’s what was posted since then in case you missed it:

And now, the latest books in the mail!

The Eterna Solution by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Eterna Solution (The Eterna Files #3) by Leanna Renee Hieber

The final book in the Eterna Files trilogy by Prism Award–winning author Leanna Renee Hieber will be released on November 14 (hardcover, ebook). The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Eterna Solution, plus excerpts from the first two books in the series: The Eterna Files (Volume 1) and Eterna and Omega (Volume 2).

 

PRISM AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR

Unnatural howls echo across the Atlantic | Lady Liberty’s torch blazes with hellfire | Dead bodies shamble through the grounds of Columbia College.

It’s 1882 and two government divisions of paranormal investigators have completed a most harrowing task―stopping a demonic nobleman from taking over the British Parliament. Now the motley crew of psychics, scientists, scholars, and magicians must race across the ocean to Manhattan to protect it from evil forces they believe Moriel unleashed.

American Clara Templeton’s psychic powers have grown exponentially but she worries that defeating the sinister forces arrayed against them will cost her her life. Londoner Harold Spire, once a Scotland Yard detective, has had just about enough of the occult, though he has seen his team’s supernatural powers at work. Together, the American Eterna Commission and the British Omega Department hope to save New York City without destroying themselves.

In this climactic third installment of The Eterna Files series, Prism award-winning author Leanna Renee Hieber delivers a delightful Gaslamp fantasy set in 19th century New York and Washington D.C., rich with detail and embroidered with a cast of captivating characters.

The Eterna Files series
The Eterna Files
Eterna and Omega
The Eterna Solution

Additional Books: