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