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:

The Tethered Mage
by Melissa Caruso
480pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.33/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.96/5
 

The Tethered Mage, the first book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, is Melissa Caruso’s debut novel—and what a wonderful debut it is! It’s Venetian-inspired fantasy featuring great characters (including a variety of women), magic, political intrigue and mystery, friendship, and a dash of romantic entanglement, but what truly sets it apart is the solid worldbuilding. I found it so exciting and compulsively readable that I could hardly put it down, and I ended up staying up until 2:00 AM finishing it since I had to know how it ended.

To her mother’s chagrin, eighteen-year-old Lady Amalia Cornaro is more interested in studying the creation of devices than politics, but Amalia is forced to become politically involved after she accidentally breaks the rules to save the city of Raverra…

When returning from a clandestine book-buying trip to a part of the city of which her august mother would surely disapprove, Amalia stumbles upon a young woman being threatened by three men. Though Amalia realizes it’s unwise for her to get involved as La Contessa’s only daughter and heir to her position on the Council of Nine, she also feels that morality demands that she attempt to help and therefore steps in. However, it is soon obvious that the woman does not need any help: she is a rare and dangerous fire mage, the same type that has historically been the difference between winning and losing for the Empire.

Even after the men have been consumed by her flames, the mage continues to burn, ignoring Amalia’s desperate pleas to stop before she destroys the entire city. In the midst of the chaos, she’s found by Lieutenant Marcello Verdi of the Falconers, the company that controls magic for the Empire, who informs Amalia that the mage has lost control and is unable to stop herself. Since he’s already bound to a Falcon, he cannot prevent her from using her power, but Amalia can if she can only manage to slip a jess around the other woman’s wrist.

Amalia braves the fire and is successful, and the magic of the jess binds the mage’s power. Both Marcello and Amalia are relieved that the city is no longer burning, but their relief doesn’t last long: when Marcello followed the customary procedure developed for emergency situations just like this, he didn’t realize he was recruiting the Cornaro heir, breaking the law that nobles from ruling families cannot be Falconers. Unfortunately, there is no way to undo this, and Amalia is now the only one who can bind and release the magic of the most powerful of all the Empire’s Falcons.

War looms on the horizon for the first time in fifty years, and if there is a conflict, Amalia will be expected to unleash the mage’s flames upon the city she’s come to think of as a second home—and her only hope is to follow the trail of treachery to its source and end the war before it begins…

The Tethered Mage is a fantastic first novel that particularly excels at characters, worldbuilding, and telling the type of compelling story that leads to late-night-to-early-morning binge reading. The societal system for handling magic and the resulting consequences are thoughtfully done, and the major characters all have human flaws and realistic struggles based on their backgrounds (plus I very much enjoyed reading about both Amalia and the fire mage, Zaira, as well as Amalia’s mother and her exceptionally competent right-hand woman).

Though it wouldn’t be as captivating without its cast of characters, the worldbuilding is what primarily sets The Tethered Mage apart as fresh and unique. Rather than being ruled by a monarch, the Serene Empire is primarily run by a doge, elected to this lifetime position by an Assembly dedicated to law-making, and the Council of Nine, which includes five elected officials and four members of ruling families who inherit their positions. A neighboring country is controlled by power-hungry mages who can and do inflict extraordinary horrors upon their people, but the Serene Empire’s vast power comes from their system of controlling magic. Once a child with the mage mark is discovered, they (and, if they wish, their family) must move to the Mews where they will be trained and eventually matched with a Falconer capable of binding and releasing their power as necessary (in cases in which their power does not endanger others, they remain unbound most of the time). The Falcon and Falconer are a pair, and the mage is free to leave the Mews—as long as they are accompanied by their Falconer, who can unleash their power if necessary for self defense and bind it again if it becomes a threat to innocent bystanders or even the city as a whole.

In an interview at the back of the book, Melissa Caruso discussed how this idea for the book’s premise was the result of wondering how a world with mages would be able to prevent them from taking over. When asked about the overarching theme of freedom vs. protection, her response includes the following line: “I wanted the individual characters and the world as a whole to be struggling with the issue of how to handle mages, and I didn’t want there to be an easy answer that would solve all the potential problems.” She completely succeeded, and these complexities and the way she showed the variety of effects caused by this system were among the novel’s greatest strengths. The Tethered Mage demonstrates the disruption it can cause for families with a child who develops the mage mark, the changes resulting from going from years of peacetime to imminent war, and even why some mages prefer the protection of the Mews to the alternative.

However, even the most content of Falcons were never allowed to choose their lot in life, and one reason I loved Zaira so much is that she never lets the other characters forget this! Though secretive about her past, she is blunt and outspoken when it comes to her feelings about her present situation, and her dynamic with Amalia as they slowly learn to work together was well done. Amalia feels terrible that her attempt to help Zaira led to her being conscripted into the Falcons, apologizes to her, and tries to befriend her, but Zaira is quite clear that none of that changes the fact that she’s furious about becoming a Falcon and wants nothing to do with Amalia. Yet the two cannot escape that they’re bound together now, and they end up in situations in which they both have something to offer. It is a bit stereotypical that one of them is book-smart but not street-smart while the other is illiterate but a survivor who knows her way around the city, but they do complement each other nicely and it makes for entertaining reading.

Amalia is obviously quite different from Zaira, but she too is an intriguing character. After she becomes a Falconer, she faces a lot of situations she feels unprepared to handle, but in addition to being about whether or not she and Zaira can develop mutual trust, it’s also about Amalia becoming more politically savvy and stepping into the role she was born for as the Cornaro heir—and being her own person instead of simply La Contessa’s daughter. Throughout the course of the novel, she faces obstacles related to her dependence on an elixir that keeps her alive, her encounters with a creepy foreign prince who abuses his power to control other people’s bodies against their will, and her feelings for Marcello, of whom her mother does not approve. I also enjoyed reading about her interactions with many of the other characters, especially her intelligent and feared mother and, of course, Zaira. It was also wonderful that in addition to the budding romance, there were plenty of friendships too—both with other women and a man (it’s refreshing to see both female friendship and a platonic male/female friendship in the same book, as well as a setting with gender equality and acceptance of same-sex marriage).

Though it has numerous wonderful qualities, this is not a book to read if one is looking for subtlety or beautiful writing. The prose is not particularly notable since it’s a fairly typical straightforward first person narrative peppered with infodumps, but it is quite readable with some fun dialogue, making it effortless to breeze through.

The Tethered Mage is one of the most engaging novels I’ve encountered this year, debut or otherwise, and it is easily my favorite 2017 debut set in a secondary world. Its characters and universe make it memorable, and I’m looking forward to the next installment, The Defiant Heir, in April 2018!

My Rating: 8/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Tethered Mage

Book Description from Goodreads:

In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point—he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen is the first book in the Ascendance trilogy and is followed by The Runaway King and The Shadow Throne. It’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy, Sage, who is purchased from an orphanage by Conner, a nobleman—even after the owner tries to dissuade him due to Sage’s reputation as a thief and a liar.

Deceitfulness is actually a point in Sage’s favor, given Conner’s plans for him and the three other orphans he recently acquired: he intends for one of them to impersonate Prince Jaron, who has been presumed dead since pirates attacked his ship a few years ago. Though most of the country does not yet realize it, the entire royal family was recently murdered, leaving them without a monarch—unless the king’s missing son happened to return to claim the throne.

All the boys were chosen due to some resemblance to the prince, but Sage faces the biggest obstacles of all to being selected as the false prince: not only is he the boy who resembles Jaron the least physically, but he’s also the least desirable candidate due to the same exact intractable nature that made him a worthy contender in the first place. The young prince was known to be a confident, quick-thinking troublemaker, and though Sage is neither educated nor strong like Jaron would be, he and the prince do share similar personalities.

Sage has no desire to be Conner’s prince, but after witnessing the murder of the one boy who accepts Conner’s invitation to leave, it’s clear that he must be chosen as the false prince—or he’ll be killed to protect Conner’s secret. But what Conner doesn’t yet realize is that Sage is not to be underestimated…

The False Prince is an entertaining, readable book that moves at a decent pace. It’s fantasy in that it’s set in a made-up world, but it does not feature magic or delve deeply enough into that world for it to seem all that different from past Earth with different place names. The main focus is the plot and the character of Sage, an unreliable narrator who keeps things interesting—for both the other characters and the reader!

The prose is simple and straightforward, though it does include some amusing dialogue and a narrative voice with some personality. Despite some twists, the story follows a predictable path and lacks the depth or subtlety to make it unforgettable to me personally, but I did find it to be both enjoyable and satisfying (admittedly, I am partial to rogue-like characters who tend to be steps ahead of everyone else like Sage, as well as this type of story in general even if the major twist was expected). Those criticisms are mainly a matter of my own preferences, though, since more of the focus seemed to be on telling an engaging story than a complex one. The author did a wonderful job of keeping the book fun, and I suspect I would have loved it if I’d read the book as a preteen or young teen, before I’d read as many books as I have now or come across similar stories.

Even if it didn’t surprise me or stand out as particularly unique, I found The False Prince to be a compelling, well-orchestrated tale centered on a deceptive character with a mischievous streak. I’m not sure if I’ll read the next book since this one felt complete and I don’t think it would be possible to reproduce what I liked about it in a sequel, but I am glad I read The False Prince even if it didn’t wow me.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

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.

Like the previous post, both of this week’s featured books are recent purchases. I ended up needing to wait around a bit after an appointment last week, and there happened to be a bookstore nearby so, of course, I had to take a look!

There were no new reviews last week, but I do have a review in progress that I’m hoping to post soon.

Monstress, Volume 2 by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood (Monstress #7–12) written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, is dark, violent, and excellent with absolutely gorgeous artwork. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to reading this volume, a collection of issues 7–12.

 

The Eisner-nominated MONSTRESS is back! Maika, Kippa, and Ren journey to Thyria in search of answers to her past… and discover a new, terrible, threat. Collects MONSTRESS #7-12

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

This science fiction novel by Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award–winning author Nnedi Okorafor sounds rather interesting, plus I’ve heard great things about it (and, I must admit, the cover drew my eye!). The publisher’s website has an excerpt from Lagoon.

 

It’s up to a famous rapper, a biologist, and a rogue soldier to handle humanity’s first contact with an alien ambassador—and prevent mass extinction—in this novel that blends magical realism with high-stakes action.

After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, the earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between seventeen million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.

Additional Books:

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 couple of weeks since I was away earlier this month. I wasn’t able to write anything new during that time (although I did go used book shopping!), but there is one new review from last week:

And now, the latest books including used bookstore finds!

The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton

The Crystal Gryphon (Witch World: High Hallack: Gryphon Series #1) by Andre Norton

I’ve been wanting to read more Andre Norton since reading Forerunner last year (my review), and I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Crystal Gryphon and its sequels in particular. When I came across a copy at a used bookstore, I had to pick it up!

 

The adventures of Witch World continue as a cursed hero and his true love struggle for survival in a vast parallel universe of magic and high fantasy.

Kerovan of Ulmsdale has long borne the curse of his ancestors’ depredations. After pillaging a sanctum of the Old Ones, his bloodline has been forever marred by painful sickness and death. Kerovan was born strong and hardy, but he walks on hooves instead of human feet and sees through eyes of amber—just as the Old Ones had.

Bound in marriage to the beautiful Joisan of Ithkrypt, Kerovan seeks to claim his rightful place as Lord-heir of Ulmsdale. But first, the couple—separated by distance, yet linked in spirit—must unlock the powers held within a mystical necklace Joisan wears. The small crystal gryphon bears secrets that will bring them to the farthest reaches of the wilderness on a quest to save their people and their world from doom.

Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Andre Norton’s beloved novels of sword and sorcery have sold millions of copies worldwide.

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre

This was another used bookstore find that I couldn’t resist. It sounded intriguing, plus it’s a Nebula Award winner!

 

In seventeenth-century France, Louis XIV rules with flamboyant ambition. From the Hall of Mirrors to the vermin-infested attics of the Chateau at Versailles, courtiers compete to please the king, sacrificing fortune, principles, and even the sacred bond between brother and sister.

Marie-Josephe de la Croix looks forward to assisting her adored brother in the scientific study of the rare sea monsters the king has commissioned him to seek. For the honor of his God, his country, and his king, Father Yves de la Croix returns with his treasures, believed to be the source of immortality: one heavy shroud packed in ice…and a covered basin that imprisons a shrieking creature.

The living sea monster, with its double tail, tangled hair, and gargoyle face, provides an intriguing experiment for Yves and the king. Yet for Marie-Josephe, the creature’s gaze and exquisite singing foretell a different future…

Soon Marie-Josephe is contemplating choices that defy the institutions which power her world. Somehow, she must find the courage to follow her heart and her convictions – even at the cost of changing her life forever.

The Alleluia Files by Sharon Shinn

The Alleluia Files (Samaria #3) by Sharon Shinn

It’s been years since I read the first Samaria book, but I enjoyed it a lot and really need to read the rest of the series. I came across a used copy in excellent condition and nearly left it at the store since I don’t yet have the second book in the series, but I was (rather easily) talked into buying it when I found out it was only $0.99.

 

And a god will fall…

It has been one hundred years since the Archangel Alleluia and the mortal Caleb discovered the truth about the god of Samaria. Legend says that they left a record of that truth, though no document has ever been found. In time, an underground cult arose, seeking to find again what Alleluia found. But the reigning Archangel Bael called down the wrath of Jovah upon the cult, and hundreds died in a hail of thunderbolts. Yet some still survive…

Among them is the woman Tamar, child of cultists, raised in captivity among the angels. Tamar believes that the Alleluia Files—the actual disc on which the legendary Archangel recorded her experience—exist. She is determined to find it, and free the people of Samaria from their fear of Jovah, and the rule of the angels.

In her search, she encounters the angel Jared, one of the members of his kind who have come to question the wisdom of Bael, and his harsh treament of the cultists. Jared can go to places forbidden to Tamar, so when he offers to accompany her, she reluctantly agrees.

Together, these two uneasy allies will journey the length and breadth of Samaria, risking their lives and the lives of their comrades, seeking a truth that will alter the face of Samaria forever…

Additional Books: