Strange the Dreamer - Review

Back when Wonderland Sydney was still standing, I went on a rollercoaster. It was good, but on reflection maybe a bit basic. The way it worked was it plodded up a peak, then went down quite smoothly before going up another peak, then it entered a fast decline all the way to the exit.

In many ways, Strange the Dreamer feels a lot like that rollercoaster. It starts a bit slow, gets better as it heads to the first peak (in this case, an end-of-first-act plot payoff), then quickly and decisively goes straight down all the way to the end. But while the rollercoaster's downward slope was exhilarating and energetic, Strange the Dreamer's decline is rather the opposite.

Long ago, a war between gods and men ended with the former getting slaughtered by the latter. In their death throes, the gods stole the true name of what is now known as Weep, a mystical city of fantastic creatures and powerful magic. Seemingly lost to history, Weep is now only important to historians, archivists, and Lazlo Strange, an orphan who has himself had his true name taken from him. Working with some dusty librarians, Lazlo becomes fascinated with the mystery of Weep, its lost name and its absence from the world. While others dismiss Lazlo's fascination as a mere curiosity, they're all shocked when a number of Weep's inhabitants give Lazlo the chance to see the city up close. Along with several others, Lazlo is taken to Weep in order to solve a very unique, and potentially deadly problem.

Strange the Dreamer's intriguing premise is ultimately not lived up to by its execution. The narrative traces three protagonists at the centre of Weep's problem, all of whom are bound by the theme of discovery. Lazlo ventures to Weep to see the city he's spent his life loving through stories; Sarai, one of the last remaining children of the gods, worries how much longer she and her kin can remain hidden from the humans who would kill them if found; Eril-Fane, publicly beloved hero of Weep, is uncertain what he will find when he returns to his home, following years of personally reconciling his actions in the last battle against the gods. The characters are somewhat well-defined and, particularly in Sarai's case, immediately compelling.

The plot takes a little while to get going, after stuttering through some awkward opening chapters which mainly overemphasise how Strange - the eponymous Dreamer - is a good-hearted lad who is consistently isolated from his peers and his betters. Things don't really take off until Eril-Fane and his Tizerkane warriors arrive to invite Lazlo to see Weep. The pace accelerates when it introduces Sarai and her intriguing brethren, their situation illustrating that maybe not all of the gods needed to be killed. The propulsive end of the first act sees Lazlo reach Weep, find out the problem, and immediately realise he has no clue how to fix it. Everything's tense and exciting.

Then it all goes off the rails because a boy meets a girl.

Actually, that may be an overly-dramatic critique. Though it becomes frustrating, Strange the Dreamer doesn't become a bad book, but it certainly loses a lot of the goodwill it built with its opening and the initial premise. You see, not long after Lazlo enters Weep, the story falls victim to one of my most loathed YA tropes when it swiftly pairs Lazlo and Sarai as lovers. The climax of the story - both on an emotional and narrative level - hinges almost entirely on the "love" that they share, after knowing each other for a matter of days, I might add. Because of this, it all falls completely flat.

I'm all for a good romance in a story, be it YA or otherwise. Leigh Bardugo's excellent duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom - the latter of which was one of my favourite books of last year - had an excellent pair of romances (and a third, fairly decent one) which developed organically over the course of both books. Part of that success stemmed from defining each character as a person first, and one half of a relationship second. It's true that the characters knew each other before we met them in Six of Crows, so the narrative success of those relationships did hinge in part on their shared backstories. But for the most part, the romances earn an emotional connection with the reader by sensibly showing who these people were, and arguing for why they would work well together because of the personalities they had established. Bardugo took meticulous care to establish our protagonists and their connection to one another before throwing the L word around.

Laini Taylor gets the first part right in Strange the Dreamer, with Lazlo and Sarai being compelling characters whose personalities are well articulated throughout the first act. Unfortunately, the interesting characterisations of our protagonists fly out the window as soon as they start loving on each other. Lazlo is so enamoured with Sarai that he can barely think of anything else, whilst Sarai can only really think of how she can be with Lazlo once the conflict between gods and men is settled. A lot of the prior plot regarding solving Weep's problem becomes entwined - and, in some cases, superseded - with Lazlo's "love" for Sarai, and vice versa. The book wants you to know that their love is sacred and wonderful, that their relationship is the emotional lynchpin of the whole thing, and it wants to take its time in establishing that fact. An uncomfortable standout passage for me was when Lazlo and Sarai kiss for the first time, and we're treated to two pages of flowery, highly cliche and, if I'm honest, discomfiting prose describing the act. As a result, a lot of the book following this development becomes glurgey, overly saccharine and, unfortunately, almost wholly unenjoyable for me.

Compounding this issue is the sheer amount of padding Taylor uses to get character motivations and plot developments across after the first act. Little is said in this book without an accompanying page of internal exposition laying out, in no uncertain terms, what has just happened. For example, a significant event occurs two-thirds of the way through the book; the moment itself is exciting, but the aftermath consists of one character, who was at the heart of this event, literally sitting in a room and mulling over what just happened in their head for several pages. No dialogue, just a character sitting with introspection for many paragraphs of go-nowhere internal pontificating. This is after what feels like a lengthy and somewhat tired second act, where a lot of the page count is taken up by similar forms of ruminating and hand-wringing. In some places, it almost feels as if Taylor distrusts the reader to work out character feelings and motivations for themselves, relying on copious telling whilst compromising the showing beforehand.

In turn, the padding forms the basis of the long, downward slope I mentioned at the start. I feel like Taylor had a great idea for what needed to happen once Lazlo gets to Weep, and to its credit the book did a great job detailing how Lazlo is integrated into Weep society through his stay with Eril-Fane's mother. But this idea wasn't enough to carry Lazlo through the last two acts of the book. When I wrote the first draft of this review, mere hours after finishing the book, I struggled to recall anything plot-related that happened between Lazlo's arrival and the end of the story outside of the glurgey romance, and a couple of interesting yet all too brief interludes with one of the main antagonists. It's not a point in a book's favour when a lot of my recollection of its ostensible protagonist becomes white noise almost immediately after. Sarai and Eril-Fane don't fare much better once the romance subplot consumes all else, with the latter in particular fading somewhat into the background until the book surges towards its third act climax.

Despite my criticisms above, I must stress that Strange the Dreamer is by no means a bad book. If you want bad, go read something inane like Down Station. This is merely disappointing because of a combination of padding and the plot's almost complete surrender to the romance narrative. The world of Weep is a fantastic, fleshed out environ thanks to Taylor's worldbuilding, highlighted by great places like the Cusp, a mound made of melted demon bones, and the toothy nightmares of the sand-dwelling threaves. The society of Weep is well-realised, and the backstory of Sarai and her godspawn kin is fascinating. This has all the makings of what should've been an impressive, memorable fantasy classic, and to some it might well be. Unfortunately, for me at least, it's just a let-down.

- Chris

Strange the Dreamer is available in bookstores from March 27.

Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.


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