Gods and Other Monsters

Pie RasorFebruary 14, 2018Creation and DestructionMedia

Though they seem very different on the surface, the two protagonists of Laini Taylor’s young adult fantasy novel Strange the Dreamer are united in their yearnings for love, adventure, and a better world.

One is Lazlo Strange, an orphaned librarian who has been fascinated since childhood with stories of a supposedly mythical city called Weep. The other is Sarai, blue-skinned daughter of a goddess. By night, Sarai uses her strange magical powers to walk in dreams. By day, she lives in the ruins of a once-great palace alongside four other godspawn, fearing the day that the people of Weep discover that they survived the revolution that killed their parents and other siblings. Sarai and Lazlo’s paths cross when Lazlo meets an expedition from Weep led by a man called Eril-Fane the Godslayer, who is looking for brilliant minds to help him solve a mysterious problem plaguing his city. Lazlo, however, has no idea of the scale of the problem they are facing, or just how much the city he has dreamed of for years has changed.

Weep is no mythical utopia filled with joy and beautiful magic. Instead, it’s a broken city struggling to recover from two centuries of oppression under the rule of six terrifying gods, who forced the people of Weep to serve them and bear their offspring. Even 15 years after Eril-Fane concocted a daring plan to liberate his people by killing the gods and — supposedly — all of their children, there are ever-present reminders of their rule. The people of Weep are desperate to get rid of these reminders in order to truly be free.

The city of Weep’s ongoing struggle to recover from the monstrous gods that once ruled them is easily the best part of the book. Taylor’s descriptions of the history and people of Weep are beautiful and elaborate, but never become overwrought or melodramatic when it comes to exploring their trauma. Certain passages lingered in my mind even after I was done reading. Although Taylor spends a large portion of the novel developing a romance between Lazlo and Sarai, it was rushed and uncompelling, with declarations of love after the characters have known each other about a week. The strongest and most emotional sections of this book were instead the impact of the cruel reign of the gods, and the conflict between the surviving godspawn and the people of Weep. Those parts were sometimes disturbing, but far more interesting.

Although Strange the Dreamer has whimsical dream sequences and light moments of humor, it’s still a dark novel. It touches on many topics such as rape, grief, PTSD, and infanticide. Taylor doesn’t shy away from showing the lasting impact of Weep’s oppression and the fear residents still have of the gods. Even Eril-Fane, the legendary Godslayer, isn’t immune: he might have saved his people, but he’s haunted by the deaths he caused during the uprising.

The remaining godspawn can’t help but hate the people of Weep for the murder of their siblings, just as the people of Weep hate the godspawn for the horrors their parents inflicted. Both sides are so blinded by everything they’ve lost that they can’t see the path to recovery is peace, not vengeance. Lazlo and Sarai are the only ones who see clearly enough to know that there needs to be peace rather than more death. The budding romance between the two makes them even more desperate to convince others that vengeance will only lead the city into another cycle of death and destruction.

Like it or not, the godspawn and the humans must work together if they want to rebuild and overcome the legacy of horror left by the gods. Somehow, the two groups must learn to forgive each other and move past their history. They need to create something new instead of going to war and destroying Weep — but it’s nearly impossible to make so many people let go of two centuries of anger and suffering, and Lazlo and Sarai might not be strong enough to do it.

There’s no denying that Strange the Dreamer is a beautifully written novel with worldbuilding that leaves many tantalizing questions about the history and fate of Weep for the sequel to explore. Still, it’s not a flawless novel. Besides the unconvincing romance, a major problem that I had was that the plot became extremely slow, almost nonexistent, once the expedition arrived in Weep. As unique and interesting as the world and characters were, it felt like the book didn’t quite live up to its potential. It was difficult for me to ignore that only a handful of important events happened before the end of the novel. I didn’t enjoy the climax as much as I’d hoped, either: a somewhat random plot twist and several pivotal choices made by the characters left me frustrated and unsatisfied. The side characters also remained thin sketches, relegated to the background and with only one or two defining traits — the clever thief, the arrogant nobleman, the fierce warrior — but hopefully they’ll have more development in the next book.

Overall, Strange the Dreamer is a gorgeously written novel about what happens when gods behave more like monsters, but is somewhat lacking when it comes to romance and plotting. I give it a solid 3.5 stars out of 5. Despite my problems with it, the cliffhanger is nail-biting enough that I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel when it’s released.

Pie Rasor is 11 years old and lives in Yarmouth, Maine. She likes Greek and Egyptian mythology, reading, and playing with her twin sister Lulu.