My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 536 pages
Release date: 28 March 2017
The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
Good storytellers can make the word count almost disappear. In their hands, reading an epic’s worth of content isn’t any more taxing than reading a novella. Laini Taylor is one such writer. Having read Strange the Dreamer in ebook form, I’m shocked to find out that this is 536 pages in print. It certainly doesn’t feel that way. We all know how easy it is for a book of this length to get bogged down in the details, and it’s to Strange the Dreamer’s credit that it doesn’t stop captivating the imagination. This is a deliberate, compelling and occasionally revelatory novel that should make a welcome addition to any YA reader’s fantasy shelf.
Like all self-respecting high fantasies, Strange the Dreamer takes place on an appropriately grand scale with an appropriately gritty world. You start out zoomed in on a tiny part of the picture, and over the book the camera gradually pans out. It’s this gradual revealing of the context that keeps the novel in suspense, as well as making it appear weirder than it really is. If I’m totally honest, that’s one of my issues with this book. It’s marketed as being super strange, complete with an intentionally confusing synopsis (which put me off from reading for the longest time), but having finished it I can say that it’s definitely no Homestuck.
Nope, for all its cloak-and-dagger pretence, Strange the Dreamer ends up being just another conventional hero’s tale. On most days a conventional hero’s tale would be perfectly alright, but when I’m expecting something to blow me away, it’s more than a little unsatisfying.
To be fair, the book does start quite strange, as strange as promised. The first half, and most of the world-building, continues being delightfully quirky and full of surprises. Then something changes–probably the author’s realisation that she does want to tell the monomyth after all–and we fall back into the same old story we’ve read and watched too many times to count.
While the switch towards a more traditional plot is good in some respects, namely in that it ups the stakes significantly, it takes away most of what made the book so alluring to begin with. I miss the original Strange the Dreamer, where there were weird and wonderful reveals around every corner and it felt like anything could happen. It’s like thinking opening a box of coconut almond chocolate chip ice cream, except the manufacturer messed up and it’s actually only plain chocolate. It’s still tasty, but you didn’t want tasty, you wanted extra.
There are two big plot twists in the last act, and one of them almost ruined the book for me. Why? Oh, nothing, it’s just the most telegraphed “twist” I’ve seen in a major 2017 YA release. That is not an exaggeration. I have the exact sentence, highlighted on my Kindle at less than 40% through the book, that tipped me off about the huge reveal in the final chapters. On it I wrote the note “so telegraphed,” a full day before I got to the reveal itself. The whole rest of the time I was just waiting for it to happen and hoping that it wouldn’t, because there have been a lot of great books that throw shade one way and then cleverly take things a totally different direction. Sadly, this is not one of those instances. One of my most hated tropes in all of fiction is played straight.
Thankfully, the other plot twist is a lot more subtle though obvious in retrospect, as are all good plot twists. This one is actually quite brilliant. I’m impressed by how well it was pulled off, which is well enough that I missed the foreshadowing despite being sure that I’ve seen this specific device used before. The dawning moment of realisation when I finally grasped what was going on? Pure gold.
I’m not a fan of Strange the Dreamer‘s main romance, which I find rather rushed. On a macroscopic scale and with romance aside, however, the writing style, atmosphere and character development all remind me of Victoria Schwab in the Monsters of Verity duology. Both authors write very beautifully with creative concepts, to such a standard that I find myself prepared to disregard most of the issues I have with the narrative. After all, it’s not every author that can pen a 500-page epic that’s effortlessly finished in two days.