Strange the dreamer is the first chapter of Laini Taylor’s last fantasy duology. The American Author, after the Daughter of smoke and bone, describes in her new novel an imaginary story in a very realistic way. The dreams of the young librarian Lazlo Strange lead us along a series of extraordinary adventures. There we see men, Gods and monsters meeting and fighting in a succession of magic and terror, love and wonder.
The fantasy genre
We are particularly fond of fantasy novels, when well written, so in this article beyond reviewing Strange the dreamer we also seize the opportunity to write a bit about this genre. This kind of stories have very old roots. They use magic or supernatural elements as base to characterise the plot, the themes and the setting.
Fantasy authors create tales able to transcend the laws of reality as we know it. This is the reason why mythology is often used as inspiration. Myth is, by definition, a divine narration related to the origins of the world and the creatures who inhabit it. Inspiring to it, fantasy stories often tell about heroes, monsters and Gods so when well written they may refer directly or indirectly to anthropological, philosophical, moral and religious themes.
Fantasy and myth
Today we live in an epoch where, quoting Nietzsche “God is dead” and myth as was meant by ancient civilizations – namely as a sort of divine place functional to preserve the collective memory of a particular community – can be considered anachronistic, at least in the Western world.
Its concept of sacrality once linked to entities external to human beings has today been dissolved and may be tracked down just in their own depths, in the subconscious and in those very good stories able to evoke its power. Thus when a fantasy novel can be said to be a real good one the reason is, for us, related to its ability to explore very profound topics in an accessible way as the myths used to do: by telling about wonders and fears which have made us turn into what we are.
A good fantasy novel
So in order to be successful a fantasy story should be in harmony with those elements which have formed the genre over time. We can find fantasy elements in very ancient epochs: from the Babylonian epic poems to Egyptian mythological tales; from classical literature to new and old testament allegories; from the Nordic sagas to Shakespeare. Subsequently we have extraordinary authors such as George MacDonald, J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis. Then the contemporary ones, among which: J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin. These writers, each one with their peculiar talent, have shown the great narrative depth and quality that the fantasy can reach.
However, still today the genre is often underestimated. The reason may be related to the fact that if it is not combined with deep sensitivity and a huge narrative talent it is likely to produce very disappointing results. Building new worlds is something very complex that requires both a great mental acuity and the capacity to connect with the mythological ground underpinning the genre origin and evolution.
For us the way for fantasy stories to show all their potential is to inspire reflections on what defines our humanity even if we can not entirely understand it: our contradictions and our being relentlessly divided between finite borders and those infinite drives our deep love for knowledge springs from.
The love for knowledge
Without revealing too much about this book – we can say that love for knowledge is indeed one of its main themes. It shows how this form of love can be a powerful ally especially when life lets one down. Everyone should have a family, however Lazlo Strange has not and he has to face the first years of his life alone surrounded by austere monks who try in any possible way to turn off his very active imagination, hardly succeeding.
This great love Lazlo has for knowledge and the mysteries of the world grows as we read and, like every good thing that grows, we can not avoid to fall in love with it. This enthusiasm is described by the huge talent of Laini Taylor in a vivid way so that we soon feel very close to Lazlo and very happy to follow him chasing his dreams.
Towards the end though one gets the feeling that the narrative rhythm that had captured the attention so far gets interrupted by a too sentimental tone that distract from the core of the narration which is about dreams, monsters and their relations.
Reading Strange the dreamer
“You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable. […] Something beautiful and full of monsters.”
“Beautiful and full of monsters?”
“All the best stories are.”
This book tells about Gods, monsters and heroes in order to show and value those qualities and principles that allow us to believe in our dreams and to face our fears. Friendship, wisdom, love – both the romantic one and the one for knowledge and life in itself – are the tools that accompany us in this quest.
Notwithstanding a too sentimental tone in the end, this book for us belongs to those good fantasy novels that are able to make us reflect on what we are and how we grow to be that way.