Strange the Dreamer
I’ve never read a fantasy book like Strange the Dreamer before. I picked it up because Laini Laylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) has a great reputation and because, well, the cover is so nice.
When I read the words “Sabbat” and “Twelfthmoon” in the first sentence, I found myself frowning and thought is this one of those rambling epics? Laylor’s writing is high on poetry that set alarm bells off in my head. I read for characters and ideas rather than roundabout descriptions that seem to be more about the author showing off their vocabulary than the story itself. I usually find this distracting, especially if they’re inept. I have no patience for the purple prose cat.
Laylor is the opposite of inept. The descriptions I read, while poetic, were powerful. In the first page, we meet a girl speared on the spire of an iron gate. Her skin is the blue of a “spring - not summer – sky,” and I thought, well, then. This is why those other authors try to be poetic. When you can pull it off like Laini Laylor, it really does add a measure of magic to the storytelling. The thing is, she kept her writing razor sharp – beautiful and creative without diverting my attention away from the actual story. What began as something I had to endure became one of my favorite parts of Strange the Dreamer.
The book is about an orphan boy named Lazlo Strange. He grows up in a monastery hearing stories about a beautiful, exciting, far away city and its heroes. When he’s still young, the city’s name mysteriously vanishes from everybody’s minds. It becomes known only as the City of Weep.
Lazlo grows into a librarian who specializes in the stories of Weep. He becomes utterly consumed with it. One day, a delegation from the City of Weep comes to his Library in search of scholars and architects. Their city is facing some terrible, undisclosed problem. Like a true hero, Lazlo throws himself at their feet and begs to be taken with them.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to our next main character - Sarai. She seems to live in or near Weep - though her location is not very clear until much later in the book. She lives with a small group of teenagers who have powers and live in a house totally shut off from the rest of the world. Oh, and she’s the goddess of nightmares.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about all these unknowns from the beginning of the book. What’s wrong with the city of Weep? What’s up with Saria’s weird family? Where does she even live? I’m not a fan of mysteries – I like surprises but I don’t like being kept guessing for long. But Laylor’s balance of revealing and withholding information was masterful. Just as I was getting frustrated, I would be allowed to figure out one small mystery to keep me going. Piece by piece, Laylor revealed a complex, magical world that set up a gripping plot and complex relationships.
Speaking of relationships, Strange the Dreamer’s central romance was delicious. It’s a spark of brilliant beauty and innocence on the backdrop of a complicated, deeply wounded world. It’s hard to talk about it specifically without giving too much away, but let me just say this: too many romances these days are centered around escapism. It bothers me when the whole point of the romance is for something self-serving and empty, rather than for the connection between two people.
It’s not like that here. Sure, there’s a bit of escapism, there’s a bit of kissing, but ultimately the romance pushes the characters to be better people. It gives them courage and teaches them empathy in a Romeo-and-Julietesque fashion. It manages to be meaningful without leaving the fun of it out. It was immensely satisfying to read.
Another thing I loved about Strange the Dreamer was its villain. Even as I grew to despise her, I never stopped caring about her. She was simultaneously creepy and vulnerable, which added a level of complexity to the plot and its conflict that made it feel so real. Actually, Laylor manages this sense of believability with every element of her story. Crazy, crazy things happen. The world is magical and weird and nothing like our own. Somehow, it never stops feeling true despite all that.
I think that’s the appeal of Strange the Dreamer. Like all the best fantasies, it allowed me to think about truths so deep that they stay true even when transplanted into a world totally unlike our own. From Strange the Dreamer, I explored the ideas of exclusion, self-worth, and the beauty of connecting with people different from me. It helped me to realize that an individual’s courage can actually change the world – although it might not always work out exactly like you want it to. It showed me how powerful forgiveness is in a world where nobody is innocent.
I felt like Strange the Dreamer was made just for me. It’s full of fantasy and romance and poetry and mythological stories. I wish I could erase part of my memory so that I could read this book again for the first time and fall in love with poetry in storytelling all over again. Oh, did I mention? Strange’s story will be continued. I can’t wait.