This is the second time in the last month or so that I have a read a second novel, or more specifically duology, from a YA author whose prior trilogy I had loved. In that first case, Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom, I thought the second set was better even than the first. In this case, though still fantastic, I have to say I enjoyed that first series I read by Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, better. However, there is one difference in the two experiences that I will admit may make a difference: I jumped into this duology before the second one was published, so while I was able to read the whole Six of Crows story all together, I’m stuck in the awful “waiting for the next book to be published” limbo for Strange the Dreamer’s story. Also, in that spirit full disclosure, I thought Daughter of Smoke and Bone was one of the best YA trilogies I had ever read (which remains true), while I really enjoyed, but was not quite as entranced, with the Grisha trilogy. So, now that you know all that super exciting personal background, here’s what I thought about this incredibly highly touted novel.
“Reading Strange the Dreamer was actually like reading in, or from, a dream. I am not really sure there is a better way to describe the writing style, which told what I would otherwise categorize as a very well paced story, in a melodious, sometimes molasses-like, manner. As a result, it took me more time than I had anticipated to really get into the book. It was definitely not what I had expected, neither in tone nor in telling, and I hesitantly say I struggled with motivation to keep going for the first quarter (or so) of the novel. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in the main character, Lazlo Strange, his back story, his interests (which, as far as libraries are concerned, mirror my own quite closely), or his obsession with and research on the very mysterious city of Weep – the city whose real name was stolen from the minds of the world, where exotic animals, magic, and any number of unknowns were, theoretically, to be found. I mean, what’s not to love about a nerdy, overlooked, orphan who wants to travel to a city that no one has ever seen to discover what happened to it to make it lose its name? So that’s why I say hesitantly, I cared about the story and simultaneously had to convince myself to keep reading it. Super conflicting and weird.
But then, about a third of the way in, things clicked. Lazlo makes his big gamble and is, finally, on the way to Weep, to fulfill all his life dreams to see the city. And we get to meet Sarai, the Muse of Nightmares, a “godspawn” that every citizen of Weep believes is dead, who spends her nights working to protect herself and her siblings by convincing people to continue believing that. And, not to spoil anything (but I think we could all see what this is going anyways), Sarai of the nightmares visits Strange the dreamer in one of his dreams. Their interactions, the connection they start to form, what they teach and show each other, how they help each other grow and change, give the novel the depth it needs to really allow the story to take off. This is partially because of the two of them, sure. They are sweet and open and strangely naive for all they’ve lived through, and honestly the rest of the cast has nowhere near the development or page time to compete with them. But primarily because the writing style, that feeling of reading in a dream, finally finds its full, wonderful, footing. At the same time, with the plot really coming into its own, bringing all the stories’ separate threads together, we find ourselves with a culminating feeling of rightness from the tone perfectly fitting the story. And so the reader is totally primed and, though not sure how it happened, completely invested in the story. By this point, like with a third of the book left, I didn’t want to put it down.
With all that being said, I’m invested in this story in a way that’s different from any feeling I’ve had before. The book leaves off at a very reasonable cliff-hanger…nothing that will tear out your soul and leave you gasping without a second book to provide that breath of air you need, but still, enough of a non-resolution and open end that you really do wish that the publication date for the next one wasn’t so far away. But while well done, the ending is not the reason my investment is different. I’ve been in this waiting position before, but this one still feels different. I think it’s back to that dream-like quality of the writing and, thus, the reading experience. It’s like…it’s like I actually dreamed the whole story. So I do care about the characters and want to know what happens next, but since it’s like I dreamt it, I know the rest is in my head and I’m comfortable for now, knowing that it’s there somewhere. I feel fully inside the story and also far removed at the same time. That’s the best I can do. I swear I really am trying to explain it, but I’m just really having a hard time finding the words. It actually like trying to describe a dream to someone, sometimes you just cannot find the words to make them understand what it was actually like. You’ll just have to read it to see what I mean for yourself.
There are two things about this book that I loved and want to mention really badly, but I couldn’t find a better place in this review to include them. So here they are, awkwardly at the end:
– Each section starts with an dictionary entry for an archaic word, which includes it’s full pronunciation, provenance, and meaning. I love this. So much. Not necessarily for its existence, as I’ve seen similar things, but more for the words themselves. They were words created for such beautiful, exotic, complex concepts and I just loved them. My favorite:
shrestha (SHRES-thuh) noun
When a dream comes true – but not for the dreamer.
Archaic; from Shres, the bastard god of fortune, who was believed to punish supplicants for inadequate offerings by granting their hearts’ desire to another.
– The Prologue is perfect. It is a great hook, for starters. But that’s not what makes it truly awesome. Throughout the story, there are at least three different times that I thought I knew what/who/when it was about, but as I kept reading, my thoughts on what it actually was referring to kept changing. It had to be written with such finesse to be able to shift to fit so many different theories. Gorgeous.”
Since I mentioned the dreamlike writing quality of the writing an annoying number of times in this review, I feel that I owe some examples. Some of the best passages for illustrating this are a bit too long to transcribe here in full (like I said, you’ll just have to read the book and see), but here are a few shorter ones that I loved:
“It was impossible, of course. But when did that ever stop anyone from dreaming?” p.25
“It was the first week of Twelfthmoon, on the far side of the Elmuthaleth, and Strange the dreamer – library stowaway and scholar of fairy tales – had never been thirstier, or more full of wonder.” p.82
“You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable…something beautiful and full of monsters.” p. 115
“To be one of a pair of bodies that knew that melting fusion. To reach and found. To be reached for an found. To belong to a mutual certainty. To wake up holding hands.” p. 145
“I think you’re a fairy tale. I think you’re magical, and brave, and exquisite. And…I hope you’ll let me be in your story.” p.380
“The moon on a bracelet and the sun in a jar.” p.443
“They fell into the stars in a rush of air and ether….It was all velocity and dream physics – no more need to stand or lean or fly, but only fall. They were both already fallen….It was reverent. It was a promise, and they trailed fire like a comet as they made it.” p.460-461