'Strange the Dreamer' is a young adult masterpiece to be savored
If you ever loved Philip Pullman’s 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, puzzled over Greek mythology, or read literally any fairy tale, 'Strange the Dreamer' will move you.
Confession: I have a long-term love affair with fairy tales. Growing up, I devoured Grimm and Andersen anthologies. I rummaged through libraries for Andrew Lang’s many-colored fairy books. I once wrote a fairy tale on a scientific calculator after finishing a math exam early. Now I collect books of fables, folklore, and mythology.
It would seem that I share this passion with Lazlo Strange, the hero of Laini Taylor's latest masterpiece, Strange the Dreamer.
As a lowly librarian at the Great Library of Zosma, Lazlo loves all stories, but he treasures fairy tales in particular.
Taylor writes, “Here were spells and curses and myths and legends, and Strange the dreamer had for so long fed his mind on them that if one could wander into it, they would discover a fantasia. He didn't think like other people. He didn't dismiss magic out of hand, and he didn't believe that fairy tales were just for children. He knew magic was real... And as for fairy tales, he understood that they were reflections of the people who had spun them, and were flecked with little truths – intrusions of reality into fantasy, like toast crumbs on a wizard's bread."
Lazlo’s obsession is the mythical city of Weep. He's written seven (unpublished, unread) books about it. According to legend, Weep is a city of glittering spires, fearsome warriors, and giant reptiles whose pink blood is said to bestow immortality. Lazlo dreams of someday seeing his beloved Unseen City, no matter that the world deems its existence fabulous.
Here's where I clap one hand over my mouth and hold the book out to you in mute excitement. There are so many feathers of nuance in “Strange” that I fear any further detail will constitute a massive, unforgivable spoiler. Other reviews will tell you more about Weep, Taylor’s cast of characters, and the central dilemmas. I stop here for a simple reason:
I want you to have the same wondrous, unvarnished, breath-catching-in-your-throat experience that I did.
“Strange” was my first encounter with the linguistic alchemy of Laini Taylor. Not two pages in, I realized what Taylor fans already know: Her prose is not to be rushed. It is to be savored.
You do not gulp Laini Taylor down while dashing from work to the train, or in the five minutes between activities. You sip her majestic prose like espresso or Italian drinking chocolate. It's thick, indulgent, rich. The taste is at once fragile and explosive. So velvety! Exquisite! How can one drop contain such multitudes?
Each sentence is as concentrated and pungent as a peppercorn or a spoonful of homemade caramel. You wish everyone you know could experience it with you, because her words transcend words.
Taylor reaches into your heart with cunning fingers, delicately extracting your most deeply-felt emotions and plucking them like cello strings. At times I felt those emotions vibrate so strongly that they nearly snapped in her grasp.
Jolts of raw emotion spark on each page: unfiltered rage, awe, bliss, shock, all dancing on Taylor's knifepoint prose. I read the final chapters with such ferocity that my husband, recognizing the peculiar posture of the focused reader, tactfully retreated. It took 24 hours before I could even begin to describe what I had just experienced.
Taylor holds language, heart, and memory up to the light with a jeweler's loupe. She slowly, lovingly turns them about and examines all the facets. Unsurprisingly, she carves out a world of gems as the reigning Cartier of simile and metaphor.
Here’s how she describes the moment when Lazlo first fell in love with the idea of Weep:
"There were two mysteries, actually: one old, one new. The old one opened his mind, but it was the new one that climbed inside, turned several circles, and settled in with a grunt – like a satisfied dragon in a cozy new lair. And there it would remain – the mystery, in his mind – exhaling enigma for years to come."
Taylor is of the lyrical, linguistic bloodline of e. e. Cummings. Passages in “Strange” alternate between spare and lustrous with undimmed effect, rife with flourishes that make you cry, “That’s just how that feels!” or simply whisper, “Oh my.”
Observe how she contrasts Lazlo, a foundling raised by monks and given the orphan surname of Strange, with Thyon Nero, legendary alchemist and the queen's golden godson:
"The alchemist and the librarian, they couldn't have been more different – as though Shres, the bastard god of fortune, had stood them side by side and divided his basket of gifts between them: every gift to Thyon Nero, one by one, until the very last, which he dropped in the dirt at Lazlo's feet.
'Make what you can of that,' he might have said, if there were such a god, and he was feeling spiteful.
To Thyon Nero: birth, wealth, privilege, looks, charm, brilliance.
And to Lazlo Strange, to pick up and dust off, the one thing left over: honor."
Throughout this glistering book, however, there runs a dark ribbon of ethical ambiguity. We're presented with good and evil, with heroism and unspeakable cruelty, and asked to consider their intersection in people of all stripes.
"You think good people can't hate? You think good people can't kill?" one character asks Lazlo. "Good people do all the things bad people do, Lazlo. It's just that when they do them, they call it justice. ... [T]hey call it necessary."
We must face the following questions: in the aftermath of personal trauma, do you hold onto that time as your defining moment? If so, for how long? Can anyone blame you if you do? Do you – can you – should you – try to forget or to distance yourself from it? What does it take to put the past to rest?
This novel is a sparkling, mesmerizing Fabergé egg. If you ever loved Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, puzzled over Greek mythology, or read literally any fairy tale, “Strange the Dreamer” will move you.