Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
“Strange the Dreamer” is the first installment of a duology that follows the story of Lazlo Strange, a war orphan and junior librarian raised in the Great Library of Zosma.
From the age of five, Lazlo has been obsessed with the mythical city of Weep. One day, the opportunity to explore firsthand the mystery of Weep is presented to him when a caravan of strangers passes through his city. They are a band of legendary warriors, the Tizerkane, led by a hero called the Godslayer; it is Lazlo’s moment to seize the chance and pursue his dream.
While Lazlo may initially seem to be a romanticized version of what a ‘fictional male character ought to be’, it would be prudent to include that it is none of these things that eventually draw the reader to him–but rather, the innate goodness, selflessness, and endless well of empathy that can be found in him. And likewise is the case for the other characters–for Sarai, her struggles, for Minya, her rage, for Thyon-Nero, his grief and guilt, for Azareen, her silent, unquestioning loyalty and love, and for the reader, a cast of complex characters and terrific female leads.
The journey ahead is vivid, and the world-building is breathtaking. Its evocative imagery is akin to a Middle-Eastern landscape. There are stunning dreamscapes, and every fantasy trope imaginable amalgamates harmoniously in this: moths, butterflies, magic, angels, demons (ijji), gods, heroes–and somehow, Laini manages to balance these tropes together and saves them from overwhelming the plot. It most certainly isn’t your average fantasy fiction, so it might not be the best book to introduce you to the genre–but it is a promising read, nonetheless.
But what stands out about this novel most is not its star-crossed romance or its prose, but the way Laini Taylor manages to transverse issues of racism, prejudice, slavery, generational conflicts, and legacies while blurring the lines of good and evil, and illustrating both sides of the story. Which is why, what the reader wonders most about Strange the Dreamer is whether, in Taylor’s presentation of so many different perspectives and arguments, a solution to so much resentment and bitterness can be found.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
As a standalone fantasy novel, Uprooted is nothing short of a sprawling Grimm fairytale in how it reads, but Novik digs far too deep into her Polish roots to churn out anything other than an authentic story. The book has no learning curve, and rather than plunging you into a tour of its world, it invites you to pick up the threads of its plot at your own whim.
The story follows that of a 17-year-old girl called Agnieszka, who lives in a village set deep in a peaceful valley. A nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home, and many since have been lost to the Wood. For protection from the dark magic, the villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon–but at a terrible price. A young village woman must serve him for ten years, and Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choice. Yet when the Dragon comes, it’s not Kasia he takes.
The reader ought to be cautioned to take the plot synopsis with a grain of salt, for what the novel has to offer is far grander (and seemingly ambitious for some four hundred and fifty odd pages). The world building is stunning in its intricacy – never more so than when the vivid courts of Polnya are brought to life, or the history and tale of the story’s ‘villain’, The Wood, is revealed to the reader), or when Novik delights her readers by bringing together the details she scatters in the earlier pages of the novel.
And then there are the characters. Our heroine, Agnieszka, is a refreshing, welcome change from the disarmingly equipped heroines of the contemporary fantasy genre. She is clumsy, infuriating, courageous, iron-willed, unconventional – and achieves all of this without being overbearing. Equally unlikable, narcissistic, iron-willed, and brave is the polar opposite of Agnieszka; The Dragon, who refuses to fall into the ‘knight in shining armor’ trope as adamantly as Agnieszka refuses to fall into that of the ‘damsel-in-distress’. Other characters that deserve equal applause and mention are Kasia, for enriching the story with an authentic female friendship, Alosha, Prince Mavek, the Falcon, the queen and king, Crown Prince Sigmund, and Jaga–all are characters that a reader is bound to love, hate, or be intrigued by.
And while The Wood will receive the barest of mentions in this review, the reader should be warned that Novik may end up casting the same spell on them, as the Wood has on the citizens of Polnya.