A vital element of Laini Taylor’s sweeping, dramatic, exciting new novel is travel in many artfully rendered guises, including flights of imagination via books in an amazing library, a grueling but thrilling road trip to a forgotten city and nocturnal tours of people’s dreams.
Journeys near and far have been central to Taylor’s own story as an author as well, with the wonders of travel first opening to her through her father’s job as a naval officer.
“It definitely had a huge impact on me,” Taylor says during a call to her home in Portland, Oregon. “I was so lucky to be able to live in Europe as a kid. . . . I wish everyone had the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives at a young age.” She adds: “As an elementary school student, I went on field trips to Pompeii! We were living in incredible places, and I had a blessed childhood.”
“I had to honor the darkness I’d created, but still make the story a place readers enjoy being. Kissing helps!”
Taylor’s literary career began in 2004 with the graphic novel The Drowned, followed by the Dreamdark series, the National Book Award finalist Lips Touch: Three Times and the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.
That’s a lot of writing over the course of a decade, and Taylor’s work certainly doesn’t tend toward the spare. She creates highly detailed, multilayered worlds populated by complex characters engaged in grand-scale endeavors.
She’s at it again with Strange the Dreamer: 500-plus pages of poetic prose, finely crafted fantasy and oodles of adventure, peril, romance, redemption, gods, royals and warriors. It’s a fantasy lover’s delight, with ever-higher flights of fancy brought crashing to earth and then soaring anew as the pages turn and the characters journey on. It all builds toward a shocking ending—and maybe, a beginning. Fans will be happy to hear that it’s the first book in a duology.
Readers meet Lazlo Strange, orphaned during a war in Zosma and adopted by monks. Around age 5, Lazlo became fascinated—obsessed, really—with the lost city of Weep, a faraway land with a mysterious story. At age 13, he begins work at the Great Library, “a walled city for poets and astronomers and every shade of thinker in between.” (Be warned: Taylor’s descriptions of the place are sure to awaken a great longing in avid readers.)
Just when life is starting to seem a bit routine, Lazlo learns that a man known as the Godslayer has come to town, and he’s leading a band of people with special skills to Weep. Lazlo leaps at the chance to join them, and so begins a journey to a beautiful, damaged place where strange contradictions abound: Beautiful temples and a “cityscape of carved honey stone and gilded domes” share space with “butcher priests . . . performing divination of animal entrails.” It’s a setting of great mystery and wonder, where it becomes clear the travelers’ challenges have only just begun.
In the meantime, Taylor introduces us to some of the residents of Weep, including a beautiful young woman named Sarai who has a most unusual ability (she can enter and manipulate dreams), a decidedly untraditional family situation and jewel-toned skin. She is one of the children of gods, left behind after a long-ago war between gods and men. And she lives in secrecy with her siblings (also in possession of singular talents) in a giant citadel that floats in the sky miles above Weep.
With such a marvelous backstory, it’s easy to see why, at first, Taylor intended to begin the duology with Sarai’s story (and there’s so much more to it than we’ve touched on here). When she first began work on Strange the Dreamer, Taylor thought about “children of war, like children of soldiers left behind in Vietnam, and their struggles.”
But as she tried to write Sarai’s story, about someone “living someplace where they look down on the population but aren’t part of it,” Taylor says, “I knew I wanted to enter [Weep] through the eyes of an outsider.”
Lazlo was that outsider, Taylor explains. “He totally took over the story. All of a sudden, after weeks and weeks of struggling, I had a lightning bolt: His nose was broken by a falling book of fairy tales—and I had him! In that moment, it was his book, and everything shifted. I fell in love with the librarian.”
Speaking of love, fans of Taylor’s work will be happy to hear that there’s romance to be found amid the trauma and fear in Weep. “[A kiss] is a tiny, magical story, and a miraculous interruption to the mundane,” muses one character.
That’s exactly what Taylor says she was going for when she imbued this often dark tale with the lightness and joy of new love: “It was a hard lesson to learn [as I became an author], that I had to honor the darkness I’d created, but still make the story a place readers enjoy being. Kissing helps!”
So, too, do those fairy tales: The book that bonks Lazlo on the nose contains the kinds of narratives that have long fascinated Taylor. “The only books I have in my office are folklore and fairy tales!” she says. “Reading folklore from other countries is a great way to expand your imagination. One line of a folktale from a country you don’t know about could be the seed of an entire novel.”
Certainly, Lazlo’s dedication to reading and research helped expand his mind beyond the walls that surround him. As for Sarai, Taylor says she travels through peoples’ dreams into greater waking consciousness for herself. “She could learn more about the people she’d been taught to hate when she sees their dreams and nightmares. How could she not feel for them?”
There’s much to ponder and relate to in Strange the Dreamer—in addition to simply enjoying (and marveling at) the fantastical fruits of Taylor’s imagination. It’s a compelling, engaging mix of super-fun adventure and timely allegory. As for how to pass the time while awaiting Taylor’s next book, The Muse of Nightmares? Well, there’s always reading and traveling . . . and dreaming.
Author photo by Ali Smith.