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Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

This review is as spoiler-free as I can make it. However, as it is impossible to discuss this story without giving away the progression of the first sections of the story, I highly recommend simply picking up the book and starting to read.

Summary

Lazlo is a nobody—an orphan and librarian who has only one love in the world. He grew up living and breathing stories of an ancient city of magic, treating the fairy tale as the history he knows it is, and undeterred when the name of the city is lost from all memories and records, replaced by the name Weep. When an attempt to help the celebrity alchemist Thyon leads to the loss of all Lazlo’s research into Weep, it looks like his dreams may be lost—stolen by a man more worthy in the world’s eyes.

Weep is a city of sorrow and tragedy. Sarai lives in the citadel that hovers above Weep, one of the only five remaining of her blue-skinned kind. By day, Sarai speaks with her four companions and the multitudes of ghosts that surround them; by night, she brings nightmares to the humans below.

Between Lazlo and Sarai lies the city whose name was lost, and its people, each of whom carries their own devastating story. Lazlo and the expedition to Weep aim to save the city, but can there be any salvation, any happy ending that does not rest on the back of another person’s tragedy?

Overall Thoughts

This is a spectacular story. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything that captured my heart and mind as well as this story did.

The story was a rollercoaster, expertly constructed. The prose is dense, conveying what needs to be conveyed, but leaving enough space for emotional processing. The tale is full of twists and turns and revelations (some of which my summary reveals–sorry for that), and every conveyance of information is done in a way that is both interesting and emotionally evocative.

I took this book with me to the immigration office as a distraction, and for the first time, the 5-hour wait wasn’t the problem–the worry was that I would become too distracted in the book to notice when I was being called, so I was trying to pace my reading so I didn’t hit the climax until after I had left.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.

On Dark YA Fiction

What do you think of when you think, “dark YA fiction”? Speaking only for myself, it’s things like vampire fiction, Stephen King, or even V.C. Andrews. Though these tend to be three different shades of dark, they all share the characteristic of being written deliberately to be dark, to pull you into certain dark recesses of your mind.

In a way, because the goal of such fiction is actually to take you to those dark places, the impact can become somewhat diminished as you become habituated to the styles and cadences of such stories.

So when I say that Strange the Dreamer is a dark story, I don’t mean it’s dark like those stories that take you through well-trodden roads. It is, in fact, a very lighthearted story at times. There are joys, happinesses in this story that are so pure and bright and full of imagined wonders that it brought a smile to my face. No—this story’s is the darkness that comes from a story with a fairy tale set-up, with good guys and bad guys…except, then the author decided to go and humanized each and every one of them.

Okay, not quite—when characters discuss now-dead antagonists, there is nothing humanized about them. But then again, we only see those characters through the eyes of their victims. Why would they be humanized?

As for every character present in the pages of this story, some are more likable than others. There are clear antagonists. Yet even the most dislikable of characters have their moments. The greatest antagonist of this story could have been written off as “the bad guy”. Yet the author averts this possibility with a single scene, only a few pages long, depicting the one traumatic event that has shaped this character into the antagonist standing in the path of our favorite characters.

The One Scene That Makes All the Difference

It is rare, I think, that I can distill my love of a story down to a single factor. And, of course, there is a lot to love about this story.

But at the end of the day, it is that one scene that made this story stand out to me.

Nowadays, it’s common enough to see villains with backstories and well-developed motivations. Some of the most hated villains in literature have excellently developed backstories and motivations behind their actions. Yet while their backstories do a great deal to give us insight, and maybe even elicit some sympathy, these backstories have never caused me to have difficulty standing opposed to them as the story progresses.

Yet in this case, through a single scene, Taylor makes her villain so human, so sympathetic, that it is impossible for me to see this character as a mere “villain” for the rest of the story. Instead, this character’s cruelty became a reflection of the cruelty that had come before, a person doing their best in a world that has never shown them any mercy or kindness, and rather than hating this villain, I found them heartbreaking.

The Cycle of Cruelty

This is one of the themes of the story: the cycle of cruelty. It is there in the overarching story, as well as in the backstories of less central characters.

It is easy to hate a group of aggressors as an evil whole. It is easy to demand revenge and retribution, and hold up he who takes action as a hero.

It’s harder to look at the nuances—to see that revenge for repeated heinous acts of cruelty can itself be a devastating tragedy whose cruelty leaves someone else scarred and angry and wanting revenge. It’s harder to see that sometimes, there is no right answer.

This story is, ultimately, a YA story, so it doesn’t torture the reader with this quandary too much, and it definitely doesn’t burden us with the details of the cruelties that have come before. The one act that is described in detail is an act of emotional manipulation that is magical in nature, and thus unlikely to be triggering to anyone in real life.

As I addressed earlier, we only see many of the dead through the eyes of their victims. There is nothing humanized, nothing redeemable about them. If you really wanted to, you could look at this story and sort the characters into “good guys” who deserve to be forgiven, and “bad guys” who deserve to be punished.

But you don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to see what is not being said. The one character for whom I shed a tear is one whose personal story is not made graphic at all. The specific cruelties she has endured are left entirely to the reader’s imagination. All that is made explicit is the life she now lives: alone and watching helplessly over her not-a-husband-anymore who cannot stop punishing himself for doing what was necessary to save her.

If it is tempting to distill these characters down to “good guys” and “bad guys”, I implore you to read once again those pages that detail the villain’s tragedy, and think about all the other dead about whom we know nothing; to remember that this is not a story about how killing the villains saves the day.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, this is the best book I’ve read all year, and I’ll be hanging on to it for a while yet, despite my personal resolution to donate all books I’ve finished reading unless I have a particular reason to keep them.

I know that there is a sequel, but I have not yet read it. I so adored this book that I prefer to bask in it for a while yet before I take a chance on the continuation.

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