United States

Aspiring Fantasy Author
* * *
Obsessed with Six of Crows,
Shadow and Bone, Hamilton,

Gods and Monsters: A Review of Strange the Dreamer

January 19, 2021

         In today’s society, most dreams die with childhood. They are driven from our minds by fear, by the pressure to succeed in a world that can be cruel. Artists are told that they’ll struggle, and authors are told they won’t “make it.” As a result, dreams lie limp in the corners of the consciousness, gathering dust as the years drag on. However, in her YA fantasy Strange the Dreamer, author Laini Taylor motivates readers to revive their lost ambitions.
         Dreamer follows a young librarian by the name of Lazlo Strange. Raised by monks since he was a baby, Lazlo grew up on stories of Weep, a mythical city that was lost to the world. While most dismiss Weep as a fable, Lazlo believes that it’s real, and dreams of crossing deserts and mountains to find out for himself. Eventually, Lazlo’s dream is realized when a group of warriors arrives at his library—soldiers from Weep. These warriors are seeking out scholars and alchemists, men who might solve the mysterious “problem” that’s been plaguing their homeland. Invited to join them, Lazlo discovers the reason Weep vanished: the city was seized by tyrannical gods—gods who ruled the city from a massive, floating palace. While the gods were finally killed and Weep finally freed, the palace still remains, an ever-looming presence that casts the land in shadow. With the aid of foreign scholars, the warriors hope they can destroy the palace once and for all. However, this task is far from simple—because unbeknownst to the citizens of Weep, the palace is home to five frightened “godspawn,” children of the murdered gods. Among them is red-haired Sarai, who walks through Lazlo’s dreams. As Lazlo gets to know her in the realm of his subconscious, he questions what he’s heard about the godspawn. How can someone so kind be the daughter of a monster? And can the citizens of Weep let go of their hatred? Adrift in a land of blood and beauty, Lazlo soon learns that the problem in Weep is a deeply human issue—one that may doom the girl he’s come to love.
         Hearing the premise of Dreamer, one might be intrigued by the setting. Here is a world of golden domes and sun-bleached deserts, mossy tombs and stunning dreamscapes. However, Laini Taylor’s complex characters are what truly bring the story to life. The protagonist, Lazlo Strange, is no exception.
         Unlike most of the men in fantasy, Lazlo is not exceedingly attractive, nor is he a brooding warrior. Instead, he’s a nerdy librarian who scours his book for mentions of Weep. Although others mock him for his passion, Lazlo always stays true to himself. He’s not afraid to admit that “he believes in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant” (17). Other characters see this as a weakness, but it is Lazlo’s love for myth and folklore that gives him so much strength. He absorbs the themes he reads about, learning kindness, compassion, and tolerance in the process. As a result, he is the only one to pity the godspawn once they’re discovered in Weep. Although he’s surrounded by heroes and champions, assassins and alchemists—folk who belong in legend—Lazlo, the booklover, turns out to be the most noble one of all. This irony is what makes his so compelling, and far more endearing than the shallow, handsome husks who haunt most YA books.
         Equally compelling is Sarai, the female lead of Dreamer. One of the godspawn trapped in the palace, Sarai lives “with a paradox at the core of [her] being” (327). Her father, Eril-Fane, was the man who slew the gods, and the unwilling lover of the goddess of despair. While Sarai doesn’t blame him for the killing of the gods, he also murdered countless godspawn—innocent children who didn’t deserve to die. Because of Eril-Fane’s actions, Sarai is torn between her loathing of the humans and her longing for acceptance. She yearns to shirk her duty as the vengeful Muse of Nightmares, who terrorizes Weep by infusing dreams with fear. As the story progresses, Sarai gains more confidence, serving as a voice for peace when others thirst for violence. She resolves to use her gift for good by soothing the bad dreams of sleepers, and fostering beauty instead of dread. In the end, Sarai’s commitment to mercy helps not only Weep heal, but herself and the other godspawn. She is able to replace her fears with wonder, stating: “I turned my nightmares into fireflies and caught them in a jar" (432). 
         In addition to exceptional characters, Dreamer brings up important themes about prejudice and how people are judged by their appearances. For example, Sarai and the other godspawn inherited blue skin from their magical parents. As a result, the citizens of Weep attempt to slay them on sight. The citizens don’t even try to see the godspawn’s humanity; they instantly discount them as monsters. Ironically, it is the humans who are monstrous in their fervor to kill Sarai and her friends. Similarly, Lazlo’s nose was broken in his youth “by a falling volume of fairytales” (17). As a result, Sarai assumes that he is thuggish and uncouth, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Only upon entering his dreams does she realize her mistake. Through the characters of Lazlo and the godspawn, Taylor shows how these skin-deep stereotypes are flawed and can often be a catalyst for violence.
         Overall, Strange the Dreamer is a tour de force about the power of hope, mercy, and forgiveness. Lazlo and Sarai are characters to root for; they pursue their dreams with conviction, prompting readers to do the same. The world-building is lush and detailed, featuring original technology and folklore. Fans of journeys like The Hobbit will enjoy this tale, as will lovers of Sabaa Tahir. However, this is a novel with something for everyone—because once it’s bereft of all the gods and the monsters, Taylor’s book is about a dream that comes true, and that’s where all the real magic comes from.  

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