Strange the Dreamer - Laini Taylor ****
Laini Taylor writes YA romantic-fantasy. That's what she does and she is very good at it, having a clear style and a distinctive fantasy worldview of her own. On that basis, you can hardly criticise her latest novel Strange the Dreamer for being another well-written teen romantic-fantasy that is very much within that style, or at least that's the case for the opening setting-the-scene installment in the first part of a new two-part series. On the other hand, there is much that feels formulaic about Strange the Dreamer, the book seeming to go through the motions and meeting expectations without generating any real sense of conflict or danger and without even having any real heart of its own.
But it's early days yet. In book one of the new series we are introduced to Lazlo Strange. Lazlo is an orphan (well, obviously since it is a fantasy - mysterious origins and 'special' qualities no doubt to be later revealed), an orphan of the wars in the kingdom of Zosma, brought up by monks. By the age of 13, Lazlo is typically also a bit of an outsider, not fitting in with the others, but living in his own dreamworld and reading far too many distracting books.
Lazlo is fascinated by the tales he has been told of the forbidden city on the other side of the Elmuthaleth desert. It's rumoured to be a city of magical splendour, but no-one who has gone looking for it has ever returned. Then, one day the city vanishes, or at least its name vanishes from all records and from the minds of every person, its original designation replaced by the name of simply 'Weep'. The mystery of the Unseen City only fires Lazlo's obsession to find out as much as he can about the city, acquiring a post as a junior librarian in the Great Library of Zosma.
Lazlo's search for stories and myths about the Unseen City are regarded as a foolish obsession, but his research yields some remarkable knowledge in the field of alchemy and other areas. His expertise however gains Lazlo an even greater personal prize when a delegation from the city arrive in Zosma, with legendary Tizerkane warriors led by Eril-Fane, the Godslayer. They are gathering a team of experts in various fields to help them recover their city, which has become victim of a terrible fate.
This seems like a fairly standard setup for a fantasy novel, but obviously Laini Taylor has her own spin on the material, and there is considerably more to the story that is revealed when the team arrive in Weep. We'll not get into the specifics of that here, but essentially, it involves angels and demons at war (not necessarily representing Good and Evil and not mutually exclusive either), an enslaved people and magic. Blue magic. And romance. Dreams, magic and an unconventional impossible romance are going to be the key to resolving the terrible dilemma that afflicts the city of Weep, but it's likely to be unacceptable to many, and there are a number of very serious hurdles to overcome yet before that can happen.
If you've read Taylor's most recent Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, much of this will also sound very familiar, and there is a feeling that the author hasn't yet got that adventure out of her system and hasn't been able to move on to something fresh and new. Strange the Dreamer has its moments however, and Taylor shows just how dynamic and imaginative her writing can be in the opening Prologue - an opening that will draw the reader into the mystery and magic to come - but more often it feels drawn out and just going through the motions in both the fantasy side as well as the entirely predictable naive romance that is being set up. There doesn't seem to be anything here either that wasn't done better in Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
On the other hand, this only accounts for the establishing scenes of Book One of Strange the Dreamer and it's clear that we are only scratching the surface. Every revelation raises other questions, and there is a sense that this whole thing is much bigger than anyone has yet been able to imagine. There are hints of that in Lazlo's development and experience, in his ability to see - and dream - a little beyond what everyone else is capable of imagining. Laini Taylor has the same ability, and the conclusion to book one certainly opens up many other paths and worlds to explore yet. We know this however because we've seen it done in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, so if it lacks originality this time, Strange the Dreamer will undoubtedly go on to be at least as adventurous and entertaining and appeal to fans of the author's previous work.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 28th March 2017
Strange the Dreamer - Laini Taylor ****