Lazlo Strange was orphaned as a baby (“Strange” being the last name given to orphans) and was raised in a monastery—not the Christian kind, the kind where serving the gods is about following purification rules—until he was about 12. He loved stories and he managed to get one of the senile monks to tell him stories, especially about a city called Weep. Weep was past a long journey across the continent, and then across a desert, and then, since foreigners were not allowed, they would kill you if you got that far. But Weep was said to have mythical beasts and wonderous knowledge like the knowledge of alchemy and beautiful art and was generally the pinnacle of civilization in a world of barbarians. Caravans from Weep were well-received (and presumably very profitable). But none had been seen in 200 years.
Actually, the name of Weep was something else, but when Lazlo was about 7 years old, he was playing a Tizerkane warrior from Weep attacking apple-tree enemies when he forgot the name, and Weep was the only name that he could think of. No one else had apparently noticed, and even the name in books and records was changed. Magic, Lazlo was sure of it.
One day the monks were all sick because of bad fish they had eaten, so they sent Lazlo to the Great Library at Zosma to return some books. He never came back. The librarians said that the library sometimes chooses people, so he grew up as a librarian (which, socially, was slightly above servants, under academicians they served, who themselves were under nobility). Legends were not true Study or Research, so no one studied Weep. Lazlo’s dream was to travel to Weep, so he researched and took notes when his duties were finished.
One evening he observed Thyon Nero, a beautiful, well-dressed, young nobleman who aspired to be an alchemist being beaten by his father for not producing gold, which the queen desperately needed to keep things from falling apart. Lazlo had been reading more stories of Weep, and had come to the conclusion that the word for the essential element of azoth (Philospher’s Stone) was spirit, not soul (since they were the same word in Weep). Bodies had two hearts: one for blood, and one for spirit. He knocked on the door of the magnificent Chrysopoesium that the queen had build/repurposed for Nero from an old cathedral that night and made his suggestion. Nero was furious that a mere librarian knew the pain and embarrassment of his failure and seethed at his temerity to suggest Lazlo could help him. He shoved Lazlo down the stairs. But he did try the suggestion, and it did work. He swore Lazlo to secrecy, and then he requested “The Complete Works of Lazlo Strange” from the library four years later; he took the seven years of Lazlo’s research notes, and the only possession he had.
While getting a book for someone he saw a procession in the distance from the high windows, and saw a white bird fly nearby, then completely vanish. It was the second time he had experienced something that could only be magic. When the procession arrived Lazlo recognized the Tizerkane warriors and the mythical beasts they rode, although others did not. Except for Thyon Nero, who returned their greeting in their own language, and even used Lazlo’s word for the city, the Unseen City, as a loving term. It seemed that Weep had only recently come out from subjugation by the gods, and it was the Godslayer himself who led the expedition. They had lost all their knowledge and so they were recruiting people from around the world who could help them rebuild and relearn. Using Lazlo’s knowledge and his skill as a alchemist Thyon Nero secured himself a position.
Some days later, as the procession—Lazlo’s dream come true—was about to depart from the city, Lazlo’s dream burst out of him and he called out to the Godslayer in the language of Weep and asked him if he could join the group, he would be willing to do anything, maybe he could be the Godslayer’s secretary. And he know stories. (Nero laughed mockingly at this.) But when Lazlo mentioned the white eagle that had vanished, Enil-Fane, the Godslayer, was serious and asked “she is here? Where?” And he directed Lazlo to join them.
Lazlo journeyed with them in their search for knowledge and skill, and then rendezvoused with the foreign experts at the designated location, and they began the long journey across the desert. The foreign experts kept to themselves, but Lazlo interacted with the warriors and the people of Weep. He learned the language better, they showed him things like the desert creature that was all mouth that waited in the sand for something to wander in. Calixte, one of the foreign experts, a thief who was brought along because she had climbed the tallest tower in the land (a tomb, which was guarded) with only her hands, and without being seen, was collecting theories on what Weep’s problem was that needed their services. For a silver coin you could buy a guess (you could buy more than one guess) and Calixte would enter your answer in her book; whoever was the closest to being right got all the money. She insisted that Lazlo play, so on the last night of the journey he made up a fantastic story. The legends said that the white mountain they were about the cross was the result of seraphim who had battled with demons to make the world safe for people to live, and the mountain was their bones, glassified. Weep worshipped seraphim. Lazlo said that Weep’s problem was that they had come back, but that seraphim are not actually so nice to have around, and they needed to be expelled. Everyone in the camp heard the story, with great skepticism, as intended, for Lazlo even prefaced it as a fantastical story that had no chance of being right.
The mountain was, in fact, made of bones (that part Lazlo had actually believed), but none of them was prepared for what they found in Weep. The city was built in a valley, which had a river running underneath it. Above the city was a enormous metal seraph, invisibly anchored there to four anchor posts, its wings covering the city in shadow. The foreign experts got to work, but the mesarthium metal of the anchors was impervious to anything they tried. Even azoth, Nero said was like the language of matter, made no difference to it.
While the foreign experts unsuccessfully tried everything they could think of, Lazlo stayed at Enil-Fane’s house, where his mother took care of him like a son. Enil-Fane did not sleep well in Weep, so he stayed outside, and sent Lazlo as sort of a surrogate son. He slept in Enil-Fane’s room. And dreamed.
The gods had arrived suddenly, and crushed Weep’s library and political structures under their anchors. The gods were three men and three women, their skin a strong blue. They were not nice. The head god, Skathis, could manipulate mesarthium at will, and would ride through the city on Rasalas, and hideous, undead statue of mesarthium and take the city’s new adult children for a year of service. The memory of their year was erased afterwards, but it was clear that the girls had given birth in that year. Enil-Fane was taken as the consort of the goddess of despair. One of her gifts was the ability to make him truly love her, but she left the hatred (she thought it was funny). Enil-Fane was already married to his true love when they took him, and after they took her, when he heard her screams, the hatred won over the love. He killed the gods, slit their throat, and then he killed all the children—the godspawn—in the nursery. Including his own daughter that he had by the goddess of despair. It was as one of the goddesses died, the one who ate memories, that she ate the memory of Weep’s true name.
Except that he did not find all the children. Minya had hidden her gift so she would not be taken from the nursery to... wherever... when they recognized each child’s gift. And when she realized what was happening, she carried four of the babies to a safe place. For fifteen years they had lived in the god’s seraph, living quietly in such a way as to not be seen. Minya could capture the souls of the dead and bind them as ghosts, which served them. She was fueled by a cold hatred of the people of Weep, which kept her body at age 6. Ruby was Passion; she could burst into flame. She was just becoming an adult and was inflamed with sensuality. Ferel was the only boy, and he could steal clouds from somewhere, which is how they got their water (which Ruby heated). Of the girls he liked Sparrow the best, but was seduced by Ruby. Sparrow’s gift was to make plants grow, and the garden was always full of her flowering plants. The white eagle had dropped a tuber onto the garden once, and under Sparrow’s hand that tuber provided food for them.
The last of the girls was Sarai, who was the muse of nightmares. Her gift was late manifesting, but at night she would have a compulsion to scream, except that instead of sound, moths came out. She could distribute her consciousness among her hundred or so moths and fly around the city until the sun rose, at which point she had to have eaten the moths (except that disappeared when they touched her throat), or she would lose her voice for the day. If one of the moths settled on someone sleeping she could enter their dreams. And she could reshape them. Minya urged and bullied her into creating nightmares for the people of weep, and being younger than Minya she knew no reason why not to. The people of Weep did not sleep well, and had such nightmares about the seraph that they did not even look at it (which was designed to prevent the children from being seen). Sarai gave the Enil-Fane, the Godslayer, particularly bad dreams.
But after spending fifteen years observing the people and being in their dreams, she came to realize that they were victims, too. She learned compassion for them, and she saw that their hatred was to prevent the pain of their suffering. She found that she had ceased to hate them, so she stopped giving them nightmares. Minya was furious and there was no arguing with her. Years of giving others nightmares had given Sarai nightmares, too, and she needed a herbal potion to sleep. Minya had complete control over the ghosts—she could give them as much free will as she wanted—so she forced Great Ellen, one of the matronly ghosts who they loved as a mother, to not make Sarai her herbal potion of forgetfulness and gave her a useless draught instead.
It was at this point that Lazlo and his company entered the city. That night Sarai explored their minds. Lazlo’s dreams were completely unlike the others—they were beautiful, filled with all the loveliness he had read in the stories about Weep. His dreams were creative. And safe. She walked around in the dream to look at Lazlo from the face, and he saw her. And liked her, she could see that in his eyes, even though she was blue and the hated godspawn. But no one had ever seen her before in a dream and she withdrew her consciousness and fled. The next night she came and he was romancing someone by buying the moon for her (to wear on a bracelet). She came again, and he was waiting for her. They got to know each other by night, and they made dreams together. They let themselves be changed, together, by the dreams. And they kissed.
Sarai was not so open or fervent about it as Ruby, but she wanted to touched, kissed, desired. With Lazlo in his—their—dreams, she felt loved, she was free of being the hated godspawn, and she was safe to be herself. Lazlo was creative and had interesting settings for the dreams, and would invite her to create along with him. He was safe emotionally, but he was also a safe place. When she told him that she was haunted by dreams and had not been able to sleep, he invited her to sleep in his dream. And when she had nightmares, he showed her how to fight them off and banish them. He was a constant encourager.
After some time Lazlo checked in on Thyon Nero to report on progress to Enil-Fane. He looked run down, and Lazlo suspected he had drawn too much of his spirit for the tests, and told Nero so. Then he offered some of his own spirit for Nero to draw, which he begrudgingly did. Nero found, quite to his amazement, that azoth distilled from Nero’s spirit did have an effect on the mesarthium. Since mesarthium did not obey the language of matter (azoth or anything else) from this world, it must be from some other world. So one evening he interrupted Lazlo’s dream-tryst to ask him where he was from, because if azoth distilled from Lazlo’s spirit affected mesarthium, clearly Lazlo must be more than he seemed. Despite the enmity between them, Lazlo was happy for Nero that he had found something that worked—Lazlo had no need to prove himself—but was surprised by Nero’s question. He went down to the anchor with Nero to check it out.
One of the foreign experts was an explosives expert, and had nothing to do. He eventually got frustrated that he could do nothing to strive after the reward promised for helping remove of the seraph, so he decided that it was time for some explosive action and detonated explosives late at night around the anchor they had been testing. Lazlo and Nero arrived just as the explosion went off. It killed the explosives expert, and threw Lazlo to the ground, rupturing his eardrums. The explosion had done nothing to the mesarthium, but it had broken down the rock underneath it, and the anchor sank down into the river below, causing the seraph to tilt dangerously over the city. Without really thinking, Lazlo saw how the seraph could be rebalanced on the magnetic lines of the other three anchors, and stuck his hands into the mesarthium anchor, moving it, transforming Rasalas into an elegant statue, and reforming the seraph’s wings all at once. The metal moved to his thoughts and the seraph remained hovering above the city, not crashing down onto it.
When Lazlo removed his hands, he was shocked to discover that his skin was blue. He was godspawn. (He had asked Sarai what the gods had done with the many children born by the women of the city, and the few children borne by the gods of the men, but she did not know.) This came as a shock to the people of the city, too. Lazlo was in love with the city and the people of the city loved him back, and now it turned out that he was godspawn. He was the spectre of their pain come back from the dead. Even worse, when the seraph had tilted, Lazlo had seen someone fall off, and terrified that it was Sarai, he mounted the beautified Rasalas—symbol of their exploitation—and rushed to see if it was her. Sarai had indeed fallen, and lay impaled on a metal fence, the kind with pointed arrowheads that surrounds a piece of property. Her moths tried to lift her in vain. Her soul lingered around her body for a bit, disappointed that Lazlo seemed to care about her body, which he lifted off the fence, and did not see her soul. Then she began unraveling, while Lazlo flew up to the seraph with her body.
Lazlo was looking for Minya, so that she would save her ghost. Sarai had told him about her, and he had even seen the power she had over ghosts. One of the foreign experts had created a kind of balloon from the gas of flowers in that country which would float into the sky. Sarai had warned him not to come, but he did anyway. Sarai had told the others that the Godslayer was planning on coming to their home and discovered that Minya had been planning for the invasion for a long time. She had been capturing the souls of the people in Weep who had died, and been holding them in the control room. She amassed her army around the entrances to the seraph, and even directed the ghosts to imprison Sarai in her room. Sarai managed to get by the ghosts briefly to warn the arriving balloon with a hastily shouted “go!” before the Minya forced the ghosts to drag her back. The ghosts swarmed onto the balloon, even walking on the air. The ghosts themselves where rather insubstantial, but the kitchen knives they wielded were not, and the five people in the balloon were hard-pressed to defend themselves. The foreign expert drove the balloon away from the seraph, and at some distance the ghosts were no longer bound by Minya. Some unraveled into oblivion with a smile of release on their faces—the ghosts deeply resented being forced to do her bidding, but they had no choice, until they were out of range.
Minya caught Sarai, but forced her to tell Lazlo that if he did not obey Minya, Minya would release her to unravel. Sarai now experienced what she had seen other ghosts experience, of being forced to do something she absolutely did not want to do, and having no ability to do anything else. The book ends with Minya holding Lazlo hostage to his love for Sarai: he must do everything that she says, or she will let Sarai unravel.
Laini has combined fantasy, romance novel, coming-of-age, pursue-your-dreams, and exploration of racism / ethnic hatred into Strange the Dreamer. Judging by the fact that the book was filed in the Young Adult section in the library, I assume that Laini’s audience is mid-teens, and so the sexual elements are circumspect. I am more and more convinced that if you cannot tell a story without sex, you do not really know how to tell a good story, but at least Laini is circumspect about it. Clearly the gods being sexual exploiters functions as a way to get the reader to share the people of Weep’s hatred for the gods and to set the reader up for when Lazlo turns out to be one of the godspawn himself, even having the same powers as Skathis, the leader of the gods who oppressed Weep and condemning it to 200 years of shadow, making it a city without light, without plants. Now, clearly the gods had some sort of breeding program, and I assume that in the sequel we will find that their purpose was not entirely abusive, but that their ultimate purpose was to benefit humans. Let’s hope for the best, but seriously, you can’t think of a more creative way to do this? This way makes it feel like Laini is working through her or her community’s pain of sexual abuse. (The book cover has a picture of Laini with bright pink hair, and she hails from Portland, Oregon, so make of that what you will.) It seems like Laini wants a fantasy book, but instead she has a modern story of working through pain set in an medieval, not-steampunk-but-sort-of-industrial time society; which is not the same thing at all.
The story-telling is not great. Granted, the books for teens tend to have simpler plots, but the plot is straightforward, and the world is not very deep: scratch beneath the surface and there is nothing. Contrast this with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles or Le Guin’s Earthsea Chronicles, both written for the same audience, which have a rich world even though much of it only comes out indirectly, through the cultural assumptions that the characters reveal through their reactions, or the snippets of history that show through. In fact, Laini’s Lazlo experiences a lot more plot twists than either of those two series, but it never feels like a surprise to the reader (or at least, to me). If anything, it feels like the true main character is Sarai, and the book is a tragedy—unless it turns out in the sequel that the flip side of Minya’s gift is to gift life to the dead, just as the flip side of Sarai’s gift is the ability to make encouraging, life-giving dreams.
I do like the idea that the god’s gifts can be used to both benefit and harm people. The gods are presumably a race from another planet, and you can see the potential where they could use their gifts to love humanity. Unfortunately you do not get to experience it, which in my mind is what fantasy is all about. It takes no transcendence to convey the pain we cause each other; we have all already experienced it. I am tired of reading “fantasy” that is infected by the same sensual unoriginality that it why I watch no television shows.
Laini has mixed many themes into a smooth blend, but it fails to rise above the average television show. There is not the anthropological richness of Le Guin, the nobility and poignant strangeness of Prydain, or the wild, unpredictability and sense of urgency of Harry Potter. The plot travels as far from its starting point as the hobbits from Bag End to Mordor, but it is a journey along an illustrated map, not a journey through cultures, places, and history. There is an element of mystery, but the mystery is merely a lack of facts, not an intrigue like. In The Name of the Wind the Chandrian are an intriguing mystery: we actually find out who the Chandrian is/are (at least who one of them is) relatively early, but the mystery remains, because we have no idea why they try to erase the memory of themselves, why they are so brutal, what they are protecting, what motivates them, or what their fate is. In Strange the Dreamer the mystery is facts like what happened to Weep, does it exist, what did the gods do with their many children, and why are they doing it. The last two are somewhat intriguing, but frankly, I’m not very interested in learning more of the lives of these abusive gods.
Strange the Dreamer is really a book about Sarai finding love more than it is about Lazlo finding his dream, although it seems to be trying to be the latter. I find myself caring much more that Sarai is somehow resurrected and freed from Minya’s tyranny of hatred than for Lazlo to learn how to be a good god. And the book is really about coming to terms with pain in the modern world. The fantasy is simply a veneer: if you scratch it, under it you will see 20th century American world view. Laini may be a New York Times best-seller, but this work is simply average fantasy.