Review: Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor

My God, Laini Taylor has a lot of ideas. Have we talked about how many ideas Laini Taylor has got? The inside of her brain must be an absolutely wild place to be. Strange the Dreamer is the first in a new series (her earlier one having finished up with Dreams of Gods and Monsters in 2014), and it’s a hell of a ride.

Strange the Dreamer

Lazlo Strange has always been a dreamer, and what he’s dreamt of is the lost city across the desert. For many centuries, travelers came to Lazlo’s country on camels, bringing stories of a city of domes and marvels. Two hundred years ago, the travelers stopped coming. Fifteenish years ago, Lazlo reached into his memory for the name of the city and found that its real name was gone from his mind. The only name he could give to the city now was Weep.

Meanwhile, back in Weep, a girl named Sarai and her siblings live in a citadel and subsist on what little food they can grow, hiding their existence and the powers from the city below. But the arrival of strangers from across the desert threatens the delicate balance that Sarai’s family have established for themselves.

If you do not care for a book that ends with a To be continued sort of notice, then I warn you off Strange the Dreamer right now. Laini Taylor writes at a reasonable clip! You can depend on her to finish the second book in a year or two, and you can return to the duology at that point. I am not in love with that type of cliffhanger, but I’m not mad about it either — I read the end, so I knew all along that there was going to be a To be continued notice.

For those of you who don’t mind reading a YA novel whose sequel does not yet exist in the world, Strange the Dreamer was a trip. Laini Taylor writes perfectly serviceable characters for whom I of course want all the best, but ultimately I am on this ride for Jesus Christ how does one single woman have so many goddamn ideas? Strange the Dreamer is akin to this one Tarsem Singh movie The Fall where all the sets are preposterously beautiful and all the colors are super-saturated and your dreams thereafter receive an infusion of color and light and strangeness.

what a great movie
I HAVE BEEN TO THE TAJ MAHAL AND IT WAS SO COOL

They also both contain moths! I wonder what it means.

Well, this has been many words in which I have said virtually nothing actually about the book itself, so you will have to go by the above mini-mood-board and my description and whether or not you feel comfortable reading a 500+ page book that ends unresolvedly. Either way, though, you should definitely rent and watch The Fall. It stars Lee Pace, an adorable child, and a running gag about Indian-from-India vs. Indian-indigenous-to-America that makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters, Laini Taylor

The final installment of a series is a trap. The writer is pursuing a set of goals which, though they are not fundamentally incompatible with each other, would probably not receive much encouragement from the OK Cupid algorithm to send each other a flirty message. The stakes have to be high but can’t be stakes the characters have already faced and overcome in previous books; the resolution has to be victory but can’t be too deus ex machina; and the characters have to end on a note that acknowledges everything they have been through but also feels conclusive and not too unbearably depressing.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, the conclusion of Laini Taylor’s Nouns of Atmospheric Nouns trilogy, knocks it out of the park on all of these fronts.

(See also: Monsters of Men. Oh my heart.)

This is not a CBS procedural. Laini Taylor does not care about bringing newbies up to date. If — like me — you’ve let some time elapse since reading Days of Blood and Starlight, the first couple of chapters of Dreams of Gods and Monsters may feel dense and confusing. The angel hordes have just invaded Earth when the book begins (that was the cliffhanger from the last one). Karou and Akiva are gathering their allies together to try to sort out a counterattack, though they are woefully outnumbered and can’t hold out any real hope that their side will triumph.

A girl called Eliza watches the invasion and holds a secret close to her heart. “People with destinies shouldn’t make plans,” says her mother’s voice in her head. People with secrets shouldn’t make enemies, she reminds herself.

You also should not forget that the Stelians — who cameoed in the last book to bop the angel emperor on the nose and peace out without leaving a trace — could show up at any time and kill everyone with their brains. That is an important thing to keep in mind.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters is a surprisingly merciful close to the trilogy, in that Taylor never forgets that her characters are defined by their hope: that Karou and Akiva (and Zuzana, and Mik, and Ziri) have always been people who dreamed of something better for themselves and their world. In a key exchange early on, Karou says wearily, “Warriors make our plans,” and Issa responds, “And if an artist were to make our plans?” It’s this — an artist trying to make her plans based on a version of the world she can bear to live in — that’s always kept the series from falling too far into darkness. Taylor recognizes the weight of war and loss and killing, but doesn’t sink her characters under that weight.

Eliza’s a terrific addition to the series, though there isn’t enough space for her to receive her due as a character. She’s a woman plagued by bad dreams and running from her past as the child prophet of a cult that believes it’s descended from angels. Though Eliza has left that world behind her, it catches up with her now that the earth has been invaded by angels, disrupting her work as a lab assistant and flashing memories into her head like (I love the image Taylor uses here) tarot cards turning over to gradually reveal her destiny. I’d have loved to see more of her and her past and her struggles.

Akiva and Karou are whatever. I was never interested in them as a couple. Happily, the nascent love triangle from the second book doesn’t really stick around, and there isn’t too much wishy-washy dilly-dallying about Oh I love you but our love is too dangerous, which would have annoyed me greatly.

For my one nitpick, I have selected editing. Laini Taylor’s a good writer, but Dreams of Gods and Monsters could have used a sterner editor. During tense moments, Laini Taylor is prone to taking a time-out from the action to think lots of sad thoughts about what the possible outcome of these tense moments will be. This is okay in moderation, but it happens a lot, and sometimes the tense moment resolves itself very quickly, which made me feel that Karou was wasting my time with all that internal wailing about the Death of All Hope.

And a word about polysyndeton: As with all rhetorical devices, I love it; I cherish it; I strongly advise against overuse. There’s only so much The sky was blood and death and toil that a girl can take before she starts yearning for the frank, manly syntax of Julius Caesar.

Apart from that nitpick, Dreams of Gods and Monsters is a stellar conclusion to a really fun YA trilogy. If you were holding off on reading the series until all the books came out, I now pronounce it safe to speed through them without fear of an unsatisfying payoff.

 

British cover
British cover
American cover
American cover

Cover report: Ah, tough call. I liked the notion of the American covers as a set, but the execution of this one doesn’t grab me. British cover wins.

The superlatives of an outstanding reading year

DAMN this was a good year for books. As I was scrolling through old posts trying to make a Best of 2013 list, I was astounded at the percentage of posts this year that were four or five stars. Now, I will say that as years go on, I have become ever less inclined to review books about which I felt neutral, but even so, 2013 was an incredible year for books. It was so good that I gave up on the Best of 2013 idea, which would have felt uncurated because it would have included almost everything I read this year, and decided instead to tailor my list of superlatives to the particular strengths of this year.

Best bookish thing that is not a book

To nobody’s surprise, Emma Approved. Are you watching it yet, or have you been holding off because you were burned by Welcome to Sanditon? If the latter, I’d like to take this opportunity to endorse Emma Approved with a full heart. Emma and Mr. Knightley have excellent chemistry; Sen. Elton is pleasingly personable but you can see how he will turn out to be secretly douchey; and as in most Emma adaptations, Harriet and Mr. Martin steal any scene they’re in together. This creative team is brilliant, and my wish is that they keep on doing video blog adaptations of 19th-century classics forever. The 19th century was a good time for Lit’rature. It’s not like they’d run out of ideas. Mainly I don’t want them to stop before they get around to Jane Eyre.

Best job by me of convincing my mother of an opinion of mine that she disagrees with and I have been trying to talk her around to my position for more than a decade now

This defense of Sirius Black. Mumsy still does not love him, but she conceded that I had a point, and that my point made her like him better than she used to. Hooray for me!

Most deserving of its hype

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell. The blogosphere could not stop talking about Eleanor and Park this year. Y’all were not lying. This book is damn amazing. I wanted to read it again the minute I finished it. I cannot wait to own my own copy, which I will cherish and put a book plate in with my name in my fanciest handwriting.

Most deserving of how m.f. excited I was about it before it came out

More Than This, by Patrick Ness. I went into A Monster Calls with too-high expectations, and when More Than This started off so slowly, I became terribly anxious that I wouldn’t love it the way Patrick Ness’s books deserve to be loved. But it rallied with the introduction of two new-and-wonderful characters, and I ended up loving it. In particular I love it that Patrick Ness is not in a rut. More Than This is totally different to the Chaos Walking series, which is totally different to The Crane Wife (review forthcoming), which is totally different to A Monster Calls. I love him, and I am excited for whatever he wants to do next.

Lowest expectations for a book that ended up being pretty good actually

Shadows, by Robin McKinley. As I’ve mentioned before, I count a couple of Robin McKinley’s books among my favorite books in the world. But only a couple, and the rest of her books leave me feeling dissatisfied and bored. My expectations of Shadows were rock-bottom, and it turned out to be a really fun read.

Most wanted to be The Secret History and was angry and disappointed when it wasn’t

You thought I was going to say The Goldfinch, didn’t you? Ha, ha, you were wrong. The answer is, The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood. I did not like it. Why wasn’t it more like The Secret History? Why aren’t all books more like The Secret History? These are questions I cannot answer.

Loveliest surprise

You’ll be tired of me saying it, but Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye. I didn’t expect not to like it, but I was surprised by how much I ended up liking it. A runner-up, because I did expect not to like it, was Kate Atkinson’s strange and wonderful Life after Life.

Saddest fictional death

Uncle Finn in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rivka Brunt. That book wrecked me. Although it’s difficult to say in a year so packed with wonderful reads, I am going to go ahead and say that Tell the Wolves I’m Home was my best book of 2013. Eleanor and Park was awfully, awfully good, but I’m giving it to Tell the Wolves I’m Home by dint of the fact that it’s not getting quite as much play and thus needs me to love it extra.

Saddest real-life death

Elizabeth Peters, of course. I am crushed that Elizabeth Peters has died, and I regret that I never wrote her a letter to tell her how much enjoyment I got from her books over the years.

Made me feel the best about myself for enjoying it

HHhH, by Laurent Binet. I often struggle with books in translation, so I’m always thrilled — with the author and myself — to encounter a book in translation that I unreservedly love. HHhH is that kind of book. It is surprisingly lovely and sweet for a book about assassinating a Nazi officer.

Whack-a-doodlest book lent the most gravitas by its author’s serious, Southern-accented radio interviews

Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright – If you haven’t read this book about scientology yet, now’s a good time to read it. I think it would be fun to read over a vacation: lots of crazy parts that you can read out loud to your friends-and-relations, who can’t escape from you because y’all are on vacation.

Favorite term I coined myself like a genius

“Process dystopia” to describe the kind of book that shows the world all going to hell, instead of starting the book after the world has already gone to hell.

Coolest design

Obviously, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. No contest, because I haven’t finished reading the JJ Abrams / Doug Dorst collaboration S yet.

Best execution of a tricky premise

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This book! So good! Karen Joy Fowler does not invent a premise and coast on it. She follows through all the way. She commits. I loved the writing, I loved the jokes, and I loved the sadness. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves gets additional credit for reminding me to care about James Tiptree Jr., an author I now really like.

Jolliest good fun

Lexicon, by Max Barry. This was just fun. It was fun and fun and fun, and there are not enough books in this world that are just pure fun.

Lovablest book that did not appeal to me on paper

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Nothing about the synopsis for this book would have called to me, but fortunately I read part of it in a NetGalley excerpts package and fell in love with the narrative voice. I loved it, and I think it’s something special and particular, and I’m not just saying that because the ending is perfectly geared towards my sensibilities.

Best Harry Potter news

It’s a tie! It’s a tie between the news that JK Rowling is writing a movie about Newt Scamander and his escapades as a wizard naturalist in the early twentieth century, and the news that the UK is releasing beautiful new editions of the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay of A Monster Calls. Y’all, I miss Harry Potter.

Most merits its long long length

Again, not The Goldfinch! (I think that could have been edited down a bit.) This one goes to Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s great. I didn’t want it to end.

Author least afraid of going balls-to-the-wall crazy with plots

Laini Taylor! I am well excited for the third book in her Nouns of Substances and Atmospheric Nouns trilogy. She just goes all out with her storylines, and that is wonderful to me, as anyone who has ever heard me speak about The Vampire Diaries will know.

Best character

Boris, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. There aren’t enough good things to say about Boris. If the book only consisted of passages with Boris in them, and had no other plot, it would be worth it just for that. I don’t remember the last time I encountered a character in a book that I enjoyed spending time with as much as Boris from The Goldfinch.

Insanest that I still haven’t finished reading it

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. I know I know I know I know. But here’s what’s up: I’m reading it to Social Sister. I’ll finish reading it when I finish reading it to Social Sister. That’s how we roll.

And that’s 2013, my friends! I’ll be away from blogging over the next couple of weeks to celebrate holidays with the family, and I wish you all happy holidays and a wonderful New Year. See you in January!

Days of Blood and Starlight, Laini Taylor

I have some serious reservations about Days of Blood and Starlight, which I will enumerate, but let me start by saying some nice things about it, because I enjoyed it very very much. Spoilers follow for Daughter of Smoke and Bone but not (unless marked) for Days of Blood and Starlight.

First of all, Laini Taylor’s worldbuilding talents are still very much in evidence. Although we already know the outline of this world from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Taylor presents a lot of cool new details about what the world has been like all along, and she sets up more vivid places and ideas for the new reality the characters find themselves in. For example, it was neat to see the chimera that aren’t involved in the war — the small, unimportant demons who live in communities and couldn’t make war if they wanted to. Though not everyone in this world is a soldier, everyone becomes involved in the soldiers’ war.

I loved as well the way the characters were perpetually forced to reexamine their values to adjust to changing circumstances. THAT IS WHAT I LIKE OKAY.

But for real though. The second book opens months after the end of the first one. Karou has become a resurrectionist in the service of the chimera who once — in her former life — was her (terrifying) intended husband. Alive again, the White Wolf begins to make guerrilla warfare upon the angels, while Karou resurrects the dead as quickly as she’s able to build new bodies for them. This is obviously less than great for Karou, but as she feels it’s her fault that all her people are dead, she is grimly determined to keep going. However, she does not control the chimera once they’ve been resurrected. The battles the White Wolf chooses aren’t the battles Karou would choose, and she has to deal with that over and over again throughout the book. It’s great.

(Akiva has his stuff too, but he is not as interesting to me with his angsty godlike wingsiness. Whatever dude. So you saved a deer girl one time. That doesn’t make us friends. I wish his sister or brother had been the point-of-view character instead of him.)

Another piece of awesomeness in the worldbuilding department is the sudden importance of this third party, the Stelians, about whom we know practically nothing except that Akiva’s mother was one and that they write impeccable and scary no-thank-you notes. In the hands of another writer I’d worry that the Stelians would prove an anticlimax when we meet them properly in the third book, but Laini Taylor has proved impressively creative and ballsy about introducing new sections of her universe, new insane plot twists, and dumping of enormous chunks of the status quo to make way for something new.

I hardcore loved the way the book ended. I don’t mind a cliffhanger when it feels like a natural end to the book rather than a ploy to keep you in over the course of the years before the next book comes out. This ending made sense. It’s what the book was building toward all along. Akiva and Karou have been, in their different ways, fighting a war they never wanted to fight, and trying to imagine another way to live. If you’re going to end a book on a cliffhanger, I like it to be the sort of cliffhanger where you can see that the game has completely changed. (Rather than, for instance, an old-school Doctor Who cliffhanger where you know they’re going to get out of it within the first two minutes of the next episode through clever means, and then carry on with what they were doing before. And I say that with great love for Doctor Who.)

Why I am cross: Things are looking ominously love triangley. I would like to place a moratorium on love triangles for the next, like, two years. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable term for which to deprive ourselves of love triangles. There is also an attempted rape. Goddammit Laini Taylor, I was just saying hooray about how unrapey your world was. I came very close to throwing the book across the room when this occurred, but luckily I had read the end and remembered what the outcome of that particular event was going to be.

I will definitely still read the third book though. Probably really soon after it comes out. Because of the worldbuilding and crazy plot gambits.

Cf. all these reviews.

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor; or, the Official Worldbuilding Committee

The original subtitle of this post was “Laini Taylor should build all the worlds,” but I reconsidered. I guess I don’t want Laini Taylor to build all the worlds, but she should at least be on the official worldbuilding committee. It would be her, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Susanna Clarke, and NK Jemisin. And some other people. TBD. You’ll notice I left George R.R. Martin off this list. I did that on purpose. My official worldbuilding committee will consist of authors whose worlds ARE NOT SUPER RAPEY SO THERE. (On that subject see also this and this.)

What I thought Daughter of Smoke and Bone was about: Some sort of magic with blue feathers. No, I don’t know what I thought it was about. Something with disguises.

What it’s about: Actually a quite cool premise! The premise is that there’s this girl, Karou, who has been raised by magical monsters (chimera). They have raised her and cared for her and given her small wishes now and again (she gets a language for each birthday; she wished her hair blue); and in exchange she runs errands for them where she procures teeth. This is necessary for their magic. The rest of the time she lives a fairly normal life in Prague, attending art school, spending time with her friends. And then a stranger comes to town and starts leaving blackened handprints on all the magic doors that lead to the place where the chimera live; and a little while after that, everything changes.

I love it when writers are brave enough to shake up the status quo in a really fundamental way, especially when it would be easy to take an “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach. And I was already in for Daughter of Smoke and Bone before the major change occurred. I would have kept reading regardless. But now I will really really keep reading, all the way to the sequel and most likely into a third book which I assume there will be one of because everything’s a damn trilogy these days. Ballsy plot twists are kinda my jam. I almost wrote a post welcoming Vampire Diaries back to its former glory of ballsy plot twists after the two back-to-back episodes before February sweeps, but I didn’t because I was afraid Season 4 was going to go right back to being boring.

Aspects of the second half of the book were actually less interesting to me, because I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in the premise — Memory says this will change in the second book! — and the second half was more character-driven with romances and backstories and things. I…could live without the romance. I do not like books with angels in them. The very mention of an angel in a book is enough to put me off of it, which is why I didn’t mention angels in my above synopsis. Luckily these angels’ righteousness is not clear-cut at all, nor is it a straightforward God-is-the-dictator situation. This book pays more attention to the world of the chimeras, and I’m looking forward to the second half dealing more with the world of the angels. I think there’s good stuff there.

My other criticism is, like, did there need to be a romance? And if yes couldn’t it have been fleshed out a little more? I’m hoping the second book gets me more interested in this aspect of the story. At the moment I keep thinking how it would have been a perfect book if the two characters and their Forbidden Love ™ had been platonic (at least to start with!). That would have been cool, right? If they just thought each other were fun and interesting and cool? I ha-a-ate this thing where the people have one moment and now they’re in deathly sacrifice-everything-for-each-other love. Not a thing, writers of fiction! Not at all a thing.

But the ending of this book left me very excited for the sequel. It’s the kind of sequel set-up where the author has put all the pieces on the board in a manner that promises many permutations of conflict both external and internal. The two main characters are on opposite sides of a war they’re both ambivalent about at best. Woooooo, can’t wait for the sequel. Except I hope the blazing eyes and physical perfection talk will be kept to a minimum. I get what’s happening, I just think it’s boring. Let’s focus on their prickly damaged imperfections instead, shall we?

I will now accept nominations to the Official Worldbuilding Committee. Unrapey worlds will be favored because I just have had enough of that nonsense.