Welcome back to ‘Tis the Season of Rereading, people! I’m back where it all began (at least, this series) in India with wintry air and slow internt and a lot of gladness. It’s approprading and reviewing one of my favourite books of this year–Strange the Dreamer, and its sequel, Muse of Nightmares.
Laini Taylor is a marvel. At some point she became one of my favourite writers, and my reread of Strange the Dreamer confirmed why. She is a writer who simultaneously acknowledges my faith in the wonder and beauty of the world, while also confronting the violence and enmity which seem endemic. Laini Taylor is a writer of reconciliation. While I have been in a rereading mood because it’s December, and it’s time to relax and be comforted, the main reason I reread Strange the Dreamer is because Muse of Nightmares came out. (I somehow ended up with two hardbacks, due to some crossed wires, one of which I have sold to Shar at a discount rate because I’m nice). The book was given to me by mother who is great. This is going to be a review of both books, but there won’t be spoilers except in generic terms (‘e.g. ‘what happened to the villain’).
When you love a book and the sequel comes out, it’s good to reread the first one, because it will remind you of why you were excited for the first one. Usually I find that I can muddle through the sequel, but I think it is better appreciated if you have some context first. Muse of Nightmares came out in October (just before my birthday, how nice) and somehow I didn’t read it until December. But here we are.
It’s hard to review these books separately. Strange the Dreamer kind of works as an independent narrative, but it is only in Muse of Nightmares that we see the scope of the world that Taylor has created. It is very clear that this was initially meant to be a single book; the narrative picks up seamlessly (though it does the typical Taylor thing, almost reminiscent of Emily St. John Mandel, where apparently unconnected characters get the odd perspective chapter).
That said, there are some differences between the books. Firstly, as the titles indicate, in Strange the Dreamer, it is Lazlo, the dreamer, who is the active character, whose actions and identity culminate in the showstopper at the end of the book. In Muse of Nightmares, Sarai makes a difference, which is ironic because SPOILER (said spoiler is literally on the first page but I won’t say it). Overall, Stranger the Dreamer is a lot of building up—of character, in particular. The heavy world building is revealed in Muse of Nightmares. We talk a lot about ‘info dumps’ and I agree that they can be a problem; however, this isn’t the case for Laini Taylor, who is a magnificently exquisite writer. She knows exactly how to mix worldbuilding with action and gorgeous writing in a way that is rarely tedious (the prose is purple, but few words are wasted; if anything, my only complaint is the proliferation of italics). Instead, as she has done in her other books, we learn who the characters are—Karou in her wintry city, Sarai in a blue citadel, Lazlo in his cave of books—before the camera pans out, and they become landmarks on a map of intricate plots and vicious magic.
This is incredibly intelligent storytelling. Taylor knows that stories only matter if the people in them are human—even if they’re not quite, er, human. In the Daughter of Smoke and Bone books, and Lips Touch: Three Times (which I highly recommend! And I need to read the Blackbringer books too), Taylor showed herself to be an incredibly humanizing author. She is a writer who loves the enemy, and wants to know hat the enemy loves, and she makes you, as a reader, do the same.
Rereading, as a feature we’re doing here later on will show, is often an exercise in realizing how much we have forgotten. I remembered the vague outline of Strange the Dreamer: a magic library, an obnoxious scientist, an ending of death. Laini Taylor should be reread, and I particularly cherished her words the second time round, because her writing is just excellent. It is fluid and poetic and never too roundabout, but just enough that you feel like you’ve been lost in the journey. It is easy to be mired in the density of her words, though, and upon rereading, knowing the very basic shape of the story pieces of it fitting together along the way, I am able to appreciate the story and the writing more.
Laini Taylor writes about war at a human scale, its devastation on both sides, and cultures of hate which, she says, blinds us to other people’s humanity, and it bind us to ourselves. While a second villain—or rather, negative force—emerges in Muse of Nightmares, it is the main one of Strange the Dreamer who is given greater depth. Taylor renders enmity as a product of context and revenge culture; all of her villains can be redeemed, though not all choose to. (On that note, I am quite conflicted about the secondary villain-protagonist’s ending, if anyone wants to discuss that with me. I’m happy to have spoilery comments, or hit up my DM’s!). This nuanced understanding of anger and history and how they create each other is plenty in and of itself; but Taylor does not merely let the topic sit. She expands it into a theme: how do we change this, she asks? How do we velieve that our enemies are human? I won’t tell you her conclusions, but I found them compelling.
It’s not all death and hatred though. Taylor is wonderful at writing love stories. Her charaters have chemistry, of course they do, but it is the genuine heart of the relationships which I was drawn to. The duology ends on a tantalizing note—there are characters and relationships which have not yet flourished, so focused has the story been on Sarai and Lazlo. I loved the side characters, and I really ship Sparrow and Thyon (if you have thoughts on this, again, please share!) though the narrative seemed to imply that one of the would end up with someone else. Calixte and Tzara are a total delight, Ruby and Feral crack me up, and Lazlo and Sarai are, for lack of a better word, dreamy. These are relationships to root for, and each character has enough depth that you want them to be happy.
Rereading this series has really confirmed to me that Laini Taylor is a wondrous writer, and I want to read all the new books she writes and hope I can. Perhaps I reread because I had forgotten parts of the story, but rereading Strange the Dreamer and reading its magnificent sequel have made me remember that stories about learning to forgive are the best stories, there are surprises in other pages and other worlds, and compassion is the opposite of enmity.
have you read, or reread, Laini Taylor? What is your favourite book about loving thy enemy?