Thursday, May 18, 2017

What we're reading: An amazing fantasy

I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, with one of our book clubs back in 2012, I think. I wrote a short but positive review on Goodreads at the time:
"I liked this book a lot. It took me awhile to get into it, but it helped that Karou was an artist and hung out with art people, I'll always read a book if it has that angle. Then exciting things started to happen and I was hooked. I have to say, with my dental issues, this was a hard book to read, though! If you don't get that reference, you'll just have to read it for yourself. Looking forward to the sequel."
But somehow I never made the time to go back and read the two other books in the trilogy. It's possible that it was because the book deals with familiar tropes (angels and demons) that don't interest me that much. and also features a great big old insta-love (Karou and the angel Akiva) that caused me not to return to it...or maybe I just got busy reading the next book club book and moved on. But the thing that was so great about the series, as Anarda (who did read the whole thing) pointed out, was that Taylor basically took the tropes and turned them on their head--not all the demons were bad, and the angels certainly weren't all good! Because I remembered that, and also what a master Taylor is at both world-building and at wordcraft (what a lyrical writer she is!), when I saw Strange the Dreamer on the teen new books shelf, I snapped it up.

This is the book that I was waiting for Taylor to write. This is the book that captures her ability to lure you into a world so completely and complexly drawn that when you come up for air, you can't believe that you're not really there.

It starts with an orphan, named Lazlo Strange. All orphans are given the surname of Strange, but Lazlo really is a little offbeat. He survives being raised by a community of priests who were ill prepared and not particularly beneficent towards all the orphans they got stuck with after war caused parentless children to "arrive like shipments of lambs" at the monastery. He grows up repressing an active imagination that is obsessed with a lost city that lies on the other side of a vast desert; he learns about it from one of the elderly and senile monks for whom he must fetch meals, and Brother Cyrus's stories possess his mind almost to the exclusion of all else. But the practicality of the monks doesn't allow for stories, or play, or anything, really, but work. So Lazlo works in their scriptorium, copying manuscripts, until the day the brothers succumb to a meal of bad fish and he gets sent on an errand to the Great Library of Zosma. He never goes back. The library entices him with its stock of stories, and he disappears into its grasp until he is discovered days later, and taken on as an apprentice. The master who discovers him in the stacks says, "The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy, we let it keep him."

Lazlo assumes he will end his days as a librarian, but after years of doing his job while indulging his passion for researching the lost city he has never forgotten, a surprising and wonderful thing happens: Proof of its existence manifests, and changes Lazlo's destiny.

This book is a combination of the best of everything. At its heart, it's the story of an underdog, like Harry Potter, or Peter Parker, or Gen from the Queen's Thief series, who gets the chance to become something more. But it's not just that; there's also the rich world-building, the magical, dreamy language, the powerful and intriguing ideas about gods and monsters. The book is completely immersive, and I hereby declare it my best book of the year. I was going to add "so far" at the end of that sentence, but I really can't conceive of liking anything more than this!

It is the first book of a duology, so you do have to suffer through the "to be continued" aspect when you read it. But read it anyway--it's so good that I guarantee you'll want to read it now and then reread it later when the sequel is ready to drop.

I'm so glad I included it in the illustration for the cover of the Reading Log for Teen Summer Reading--perhaps more teens will find it because of that, and if they are fantasy readers, they need to find it!

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