The first half of Laini Taylor’s début novel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, is one of the greatest beginnings of a fantasy novel. We are introduced first to Karou in her art class, and then, slowly, to the creatures who raise her. Their leader is the monstrous Brimstone, who turns teeth into wishes. Taylor expertly tantalises us about their true nature. Is Karou unwittingly stealing teeth to power the devil, or something much worse? This is a true masterpiece that surpasses even Gaiman as arguably the 21st Century’s greatest piece of urban fantasy.
The trilogy which follows that stunning opening is crammed full of ideas and moral complexity, but after the revelation about Brimstone’s true nature, the fizzling magic effervesces. The trilogy is great, but no longer unparalleled, and sometimes gets a little bogged down in romance arcs.
Taylor’s fourth novel is her first to not follow Karou. Strange, The Dreamer is a high-fantasy novel about an orphaned librarian, Lazlo Strange, who is obsessed with high fantasy. While researching the fabled and forgotten city of Weep, he stumbles on the secret of how their ancient alchemists turned lead into gold. He passes it onto the city’s top chemist, the highly-privileged Thyon Nero, and allows Nero to take all the credit in order to preserve his reputation. Although Strange’s love of dreams earns him ridicule from his colleagues, that ends when the legendary warriors of Weep ride into town seeking Nero’s help. Impressed by Strange’s love of their home, they take him with them. Once they get there, his dreams really do start to come true…
This is an incredibly rich story that will not disappoint Taylor’s existing fanbase, but should also win over anyone turned off by the slightly clichéd romance arc in Smoke and Bone. Yes, this story does have a romance which cynical readers may parallel with Karou and Akiva’s relationship, but this one feels far more natural, and enriches the surrounding story rather than interrupting it. In mystery, too, Taylor improves on her previous work. There are enough clues that alert readers will have figured out the big twists a few chapters before they happen, but Taylor never allows the story to stagnate. There’s always a couple of unanswered questions on the go, compelling you on. Most impressively, Taylor has also probably managed to trump the moral complexity of Smoke and Bone. In Strange, the clean villains are monsters beyond any redemption, but also long dead. The survivors hate and fear each other, and it’s simultaneously understandable, unavoidable, and deeply tragic.
This is a story about prejudice and empathy, vengeance and sacrifice, love and dreaming. It’s weighty but never weighed down. It is, in short, exactly what a fantasy novel should be. Best of all, it concludes neatly, even though there are two sequels to look forward to. Few readers will not be drawn back.
Thanks to Hodder & Stroughton for the proof copy.