Strange the Dreamer; a review in list format

Synopsis: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

I got Strange the Dreamer from the library, not knowing anything about it but still feeling a little bit skeptical, just because popular YA novels and I don’t seem to get along for some reason–I sound like such a snob, I know. I read the first five chapters on the way home, and I loved them. The writing was lush and descriptive. The characters weren’t the worst. (Maybe ‘characters weren’t the worst’ should have been the first sign.)

And then it all went downhill from there, and I gave it up at 50-75% and skimmed the rest.

Heh. Yes, I am hard to please. But I think I read enough of the book to form an opinion on it, and I just thought I’d post my thoughts anyway, for your enjoyment (or unenjoyment). And it’s in list format! Because I like lists! And I am sorry I didn’t like this book, I feel bad and hard to please. But I didn’t. And I’m slightly bitter.

So to sum up, this is very much a just-for-me post.

Nice Mothling (the things I like):

  • Ooh, the cover. Blue and gold are like my favorite. And it has moths! Heh heh.
  • It’s definitely not badly written. The prose is amazing. It’s like eating a cake. So many writers (including myself) completely forget description. This is coated in description, and it. is. Beautiful.
  • The worldbuilding has holes, but it is gorgeous. And I love the sort of surrealist magic that you see. The actual magic you see the characters doing wasn’t as interesting to me, but that is purely personal opinion. Maybe I’ll write an article about the types of magic I like seeing in books and the types of magic I’m tired of. And then I can proceed to go against everything I say in my own writing, because I love not following my own advice.
  • I’ve kind of had a taste for surrealist magic lately, and I love the demon bones and ghost birds. Those were cool.
  • The characters weren’t the worst, but I do wish she had focused on character dynamics more? Character dynamics are the one thing that will keep me from nitpicking. And this does tie back into the description, because I think she focused so much on description she let this fall to the wayside a bit? It’s a problem with description when it keeps the story from feeling in the present, and yes, that happens in this story. And I do sympathize, because mixing action and character and description is incredibly hard, and I have that very same problem. But it’s so so important to do. So no hate here, but I just feel like it could have done better?
  • I like Thyon, and he’s the only character I deeply connected to. He suffers and hurts and overworks himself. He sort of plagiarizes Lazlo’s work–Lazlo is the one who helped him make his breakthrough on alchemy and learn about the Unseen City, also known as Weep, and yet he never says that Lazlo is the reason why he got that far (it’s a bit…more complicated, but that’s a basic summary of what happened without going into all the lengthy details). But I still understand why Thyon did that in-story. That being said, there really are moments in the book where Thyon feels like a caricature, and I’m not sure why. For some reason it always happens when he’s not working on his alchemy? He needs to work on his alchemy 100% of the time, it’s the only time when he’s a relatable character, lol.
  • I also like how Thyon’s abuse is portrayed and how it isn’t treated as an excuse for the things he does. That is not addressed nearly enough in fiction. Yes, an abusive background can make a character’s actions more understandable in a novel, but sympathetic? Definitely not always. Your choices are still your own. There was a bit of unreality for me in the way Lazlo handled the abuse though. Lazlo’s reaction was basically, ‘Oh, he’s being abused! I feel bad for him and want to help him! Oh wait, he’s a jerkface. Never mind.’ Please give me more conflicting emotions. Or else have Lazlo feel like Thyon has no excuse since Lazlo went through sort of the same thing! That would be a more convincing reaction, too!
  • Can you tell Thyon is the only thing I like in this book? He’s such a bit-part character, it’s sad. Although why did he get two chapters introducing his backstory if he was going to fade into the background for most of the novel? It’s not my fault, the novel tricked me into thinking he was going to be a major character!
  • Why does Lazlo miss so many cues? I could see Thyon’s motivations for wanting to leave the city, and Lazlo just…couldn’t. Lazlo, it’s not rocket science, it’s obvious. Also, that’s where Thyon started feeling like a caricature. Exact point. He recovers later, but it’s a while later.
  • Having an unreliable narrator is hard, I know, but what you do is put in subtle cues and clues. Show me the desperation in Thyon’s eyes when he’s offered the chance to leave the city. Hint that he has a bigger motivation than what Lazlo attributes to him.
  • They could have shown Lazlo as being less ‘introverted’ and more ‘insanely socially awkward without a clue as to how to relate to people’. And it would have made more sense and I would have loved Lazlo ten times more.
  • Oh God, I’m complaining in the part where I’m supposed to be talking about the things I like, I’m sorry
  • Calixte is a queen, and I needed the rep right now, thanks. I appreciate that.
  • I like Sarai and friends much better than I expected. Most of them. Ahem.
  • And I do love how this book doesn’t do the, ‘oh, someone got raped! They never think about it again and it never gives them any more emotional trauma.’ Like, that stuff is scarring and this book treats it as such.
  • I do like that Lazlo is a little older than usual. I’m sick of teens who think exactly like 40-year-old adults.
  • Minya is a frightening murder-child yet she’s so broken and I like her, not as a person, but as a character. She was grating at first, but once I saw the chapter from her point of view…Oh. My heart.
  • “Lazlo thought they looked like a pack of ghosts on coffee break.” THAT IS A GREAT LINE.
  • WE NEED. MORE SCHOLARLY. CHARACTERS IN YA. Thyon is a very science-focused character, and Lazlo is a historian, and I love that. We do not get NEARLY enough of these types of characters in YA. In fact, this whole book read like a love-letter to academics, and I really, really appreciate that. Unfortunately, there were some ways in which academics were portrayed that were…not very realistic IMO, but who knows, I could be wrong. I am a smol moth without much life experience. Although honestly I would have just liked a book that focuses more on the research side of things while still managing to have some adventure? This was mostly adventure. I loved the Amelia Peabody series for that reason!

Angry Mothling (The things I nitpick, and for some of this, do keep in mind I could just be an ignorant little moth who doesn’t know how scholarly things work):

  • How the heck does Lazlo teach himself to read? I don’t know if no one’s ever done it before, but…let me just say I find it about as likely as the BFG stealing a book and teaching himself to read solely from that. Except Roald Dahl was writing a charming sort-of nonsensical story, so it’s okay in The BFG.
  • Which leads into the next problem—Lazlo, a poor kid with no college education, has managed to teach himself linguistics well enough to have reconstructed an entire dead language by the age of twenty. By himself. Along with a good portion of the dead culture.
  • I thought I would love reading scholarly wish fulfillment, but it turns out all I can do is scream. Maybe I’m just jealous.
  • Also, I have trouble believing that Lazlo is reconstructing a dead culture that no one else has ever done any scholarly work on—and he has no one to check his work—and there aren’t a bunch of ridiculous mistakes. Here is how this sort of thing works, in my experience: 1.) Someone comes along to an unexplored field and does work in it. 2.) They hit on some truths. 3.) They also come up with a lot of crazy and stupid theories. 4.) Other people come along, see the work that they did, and improve their mistakes. Conclusion; history–and science, and literally anything–isn’t done alone.
  • Or at least have someone else who’s also interested in Lazlo’s field and who can check his work! I vote Thyon. We need more Thyon scenes.
  • Also, finding a record of a sale for some immortality elixir is definitely not proof that immortality elixir was real, Lazlo. People bought unicorn horns back in the day. At least his boss does point out that he could be looking at something other than what he thinks he’s seeing, but I’m kind of surprised Lazlo didn’t go in with that mindset already. (I told you this was nitpicky!)
  • Okay, and then there’s the entire concept of the mythical city of Weep. Why is it a myth? If they have enough primary documents that Lazlo can reconstruct the entire language, no one in their right mind would consider that a myth! Am I missing something?
  • Also. Why do they have monasteries and cathedrals and a freaking concept of purgatory and yet they’re all pagan? Excuse me, I just have trouble believing that you could superimpose paganism onto the Christian trappings and not change those trappings a lot.
  • And the characters, ooh the characters…
  • I just don’t like Lazlo! His bad past never really affects him strongly, not in a mental or moral way. He grows up uneducated, yet by the time he’s twenty he’s reconstructed a whole dead language. He grows up being insulted and mistreated, yet he never seems to have any deep self-esteem issues or moral problems or any mental issues whatsoever. I genuinely don’t know why he didn’t have good parents, and it would have made much more sense if he had been raised by scholarly people who could have put him on that track. Not every character needs the stock orphan backstory. Some need to be orphans, some don’t. It wouldn’t have changed anything in the story or in his character if he had been raised by Hyrokkin (who is a great character).
  • We never even see him work for anything. His backstory is sort of brushed over—Thyon had a more emotional, heartwrenching backstory than him, and Thyon’s backstory was told in two chapters—so we never actually see him doing the work. We only see the results. We don’t see him getting frustrated and feeling like he’ll never be able to figure out this dead language, we only see him once he already has it down. We don’t see him doing the grueling labor and getting exhausted and hot in the desert, we only see him once he’s already fit and muscular. He doesn’t work hard enough. He doesn’t have enough setbacks.
  • Thyon, by contrast, you see putting in grueling hours into his alchemy and getting sick over it. And it’s weird to say he’s the one who works hard since he’s the one who sort of plagiarized the hero, but I mean in the sense of what you actually see the characters doing. You see Thyon struggling to get what he wants. And yet Thyon is only given the answers to his alchemy once Lazlo the god-librarian shows up at his doorstep. And proceeds to solve all his problems within the course of five minutes, even though it’s not Lazlo’s field of study.
  • Oh goodness, I wrote that joke about him being a god-librarian when I was halfway through the book, and let me just say, after having skimmed through to the end…AUTHOR NOOO
  • This novel should have had a smaller cast than it did, there were a ton of characters, but only a few were developed. Only a VERY few were fully developed.
  • There weren’t really any stakes in Lazlo’s chapters, but there were much higher stakes in Sarai’s chapters, and…it was like watching slice of life try to be action-adventure. It didn’t work. I ended up bored all through Lazlo’s parts, which was most of the book. It’d be fine if it were supposed to be slice of life, and I’d actually be interested in reading slice of life fantasy. But the novel wanted to be a high-stakes fantasy, and it couldn’t.
  • Sarai doesn’t show up until, like, 100 pages in, and their ship and the book suffers for it. I think the point where Lazlo and Sarai got together was the exact point I started skimming? Sarai should have been a fascinating character, and I liked her, just…for some reason, we didn’t entirely click? I liked her better than Lazlo, though. She actually has serious issues she has to deal with throughout most of the book (like not dying), which made her chapters much more interesting to read. I didn’t really expect to like her chapters the best.
  • Although…ALTHOUGH.
  • Ruby forced Feral to kiss her and I’m pretty sure it was played for laughs? I’ve been having trouble with YA recently for this reason. I know handling sexual assault and harassment is hard, but…Oh well, this definitely isn’t the worst portrayal I’ve seen in YA recently. Ow.
  • After I thought about it for a few minutes after reading, I realized that Ruby was doing the same thing with the ghosts? She mentioned kissing them, and it was definitely heavy making out. The ghosts are Minya’s slaves and magically bound to her will, and the girls can’t always tell when Minya is forcing the ghosts to do something or not. And even if the ghosts did want to, I would still seriously question Ruby for consenting to that in that situation.
  • If this was ever addressed as an issue, I didn’t see it. And badly mishandling issues like these can happen, I’m not saying the author is a bad person, I just wish someone had caught it. The author. The editors. SOMEBODY.
  • Ugh
  • Poorly handled sexual assault will be the reason I quit reading
  • And I almost missed this! Shame on me!
  • Back to Lazlo, because I don’t want to think about Ruby anymore.
  • Lazlo is special
  • “Their vivid faces showed their surprise—not because Lazlo had called out, but because he had called out in Unseen, and unlike Thyon, he didn’t treat it like a common thing, but the rare and precious gem it was. The words, in the reverent tone of his rough voice, sounded like a magic spell.” AM I THE ONLY ONE INCREDIBLY ANNOYED BY THIS.
  • I don’t speak Latin like other people, especially not my arch-nemesis. I speak Latin with love.
  • It genuinely kind of annoyed me at first how entitled Lazlo was when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to go to the Unseen City–I’m SORRY you’re a historian with no practical skills, it happens to some of us, Lazlo–but when I reread the scene, I realized the main point where he felt like that was after Thyon was gloating to him, so…maybe understandable? I still have no idea why Thyon did that, by the way. You’ve won, Thyon. Something about that scene yanked me out of reality so hard, and I can’t exactly put my finger on it?
  • Remember how I said that Thyon started feeling like a caricature at a point? Well, it’s more like everyone felt like a caricature during that point, and Thyon suffered too. Lazlo…tended to pass sweeping judgments on everyone and it was a little hard to read? Or maybe the novel passed sweeping judgments on everyone? Minya was handled much better–she worried me at first, because I was worried they wouldn’t address what she was doing, but after a while, it was clear she was supposed to be bad. But though she was bad, the book didn’t pass judgment on her, per se. It just let her actions stand for what they were. She does much worse things than all the other characters, and yet the bad characters in Lazlo’s sections are treated as being one-dimensionally bad, even characters who by rights should have been very complex.
  • Lazlo has every right to be angry at those people, but he doesn’t have the right to not be emotionally complex about it.
  • And then when Lazlo was proven right about the bet. Ugh. We get it, Lazlo! We don’t want to read your high school diary entry about how your bullies got their comeuppance in every way!
  • Notice how much longer my negative part of the review is. I’m sorry I’m so mean, guys.
  • And I’m making this novel sound awful, but it’s definitely not the worst book I’ve read, there are just parts of it that grate on my nerves!
  • Of course Lazlo’s ‘male scent’ is sandalwood and musk (yes Sarai said that). That is the only scent males have. Remember that, romance writers.
  • I hate this word, but I sort of think of Lazlo as a Mary Sue? I like all the characters who are not him. Or Ruby. Ugh. *cue much visceral shuddering at the mention of Ruby*
  • After giving up on this book, I feel drained and exhausted, sort of like Thyon after distilling too much Azoth

In conclusion: I am never forcing myself to try to finish a book again, especially not when it’s six hundred pages. I know I sound incredibly bitter, but it really wasn’t the worst book, I just didn’t like it. The problem was that I tried to force myself to finish it, and apparently I lost that ability at age fifteen. Which is why I am left a bitter and angry moth, rather than the happy moth you know and love.

But we do definitely, definitely need more scholars in fiction. I do love that aspect, even though I don’t think it was explored enough. There is a hole in the market.

I am sorry this got so scathing. And so long. I had a lot to say.

4 thoughts on “Strange the Dreamer; a review in list format

  1. Well the cover is gorgeous and your review is fun 😉 I will say to the pagan parts … a lot of modern Christian practices were based on pagan traditions, so maybe that has something to do with it? Though I’m not sure without more context from the book ;p But yeah there are a lot of similarities just because some of our Christian traditions have been borrowed from the Pagans in order to unite them back when Catholics were uniting the world in their religion. And the book being a scholarly book does make it sound interesting, as you say 😉

    keturahskorner.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aww, thanks! And yes, that is a very gorgeous cover

      It is true that there are pagan practices still in Christianity, but I think my suspension of disbelief was mostly broken when a character referenced purgatory, because that’s just such a very Catholic concept. I guess I kind of felt like they just slapped Christian practices onto a pagan religion without really explaining why, or exploring what difference that would make to the religion. (And it’s true I’ve done very similar things in my own writing, I’m a hypocrite whenever I complain about a book XD.)
      I do think an exploration in fantasy regarding that mix of paganism and Christianity would be fascinating, and you already kind of have that in folklore with the fey–something that’s hardly ever explored in modern retellings of the fey for some reason–but for some reason this didn’t quite do it for me. That could definitely have been what the author was going for, though. That’s a good point!

      And yes, I love that the main character is a historian, I love history even though I never study it enough XD

      Like

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