Wildly imaginative fantasy invites you into a world of magic and myth

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

‘He drifted about with his head full of myths, always at least half lost in some otherland of story. Demons and wingsmiths, seraphim and spirits, he loved it all. He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales his first day on the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about Lazlo Strange: head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy.’

Since he was five years old, war orphan and junior librarian Lazlo Strange has 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 a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and Lazlo has the chance to follow his dream.

Laini Taylor, the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, once again puts her huge, fearsome imagination to the test in her latest offering – technically a young adult novel, it is nevertheless complex enough to warrant a devoted legion of adult readers.

I tumbled head over heels in love with this book. The world is utterly engrossing, captivating and wildly imaginative. Taylor has created a world that is so rich in imagery, myth and magic that readers will be hard-pressed to find the will to put it down.

Lazlo is a wonderfully charming character. He’s very likeable – sweet, courageous and a compulsive reader – so much so that when the viewpoint shifts to our other main character, Sarai, at first I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I was leaving Lazlo’s company. Thankfully Sarai turned out to be just as interesting to spend time with – tough but conflicted, powerful but flawed. Oh, and she’s also the daughter of the most feared goddess of all time.

Despite the depth and intricacy of the world Taylor has created, she has managed to create characters who still feel like real people – they’ve just been placed in extraordinary situations.

Unfortunately, the pacing is where this book was let down. The last third or so of the book is where I began to lose interest. All the adventure and strife that had gone before was relegated to the background and in its place was a story of two characters falling in love. Admittedly the way they fall in love and carry out their romance is unusual and intriguing, but no one needs a two-page description of two characters’ first kiss. The problem was that the story felt so big, the scale and the risks so momentous, but then it kept shrinking until all it amounted to was two characters pining for each other.

It’s quite obvious to see where the plot is going most of the time, and it does veer dangerously close to the Chosen One trope so overused in fantasy fiction, but it was nevertheless a highly enjoyable journey to get there, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next book in the series.

It will be up to each individual reader to decide whether Strange the Dreamer’s positives outweigh its flaws, whether the fantastic first two-thirds of the book are enough to make up for the disappointment of a muddled ending.

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Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight features a compelling heroine hell-bent on revenge

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

“You’ll be a rumour. A whisper. The thought that wakes the bastards of this world sweating in the nevernight. The last thing you will ever be, girl, is someone’s hero.”

Mia Covere is only 10 years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Six years later, she takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. It took me a good 150 pages to get into it and, after that finally happened, I mostly enjoyed reading it, but there were problems at every turn.

The fantasy genre is full of stories of young boys and girls training to be assassins (two of my favourites are The Name of the Wind by Philip Rothfuss and Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb) and Nevernight didn’t feel as though it had anything new to add. It borrows too heavily from books in the same genre to be truly unique.

Kristoff has a serious case of purple prose. He frequently uses convoluted similes and metaphors that made me want to put the book down and severely hindered my enjoyment of the story. The descriptions often didn’t make sense – ‘If her face were a puzzle, most would put it back in the box, unfinished’ – and Kristoff’s determination to make every scene overly dramatic only added to this problem.

It also felt a lot like cheating for Kristoff to include footnotes which often took up half the page detailing the history of the world the story takes place in. One of the hardest challenges for a fantasy writer is to avoid the dreaded info dump, and footnotes felt like a new way for Kristoff to do just that. More than anything they disrupted the rhythm of the story.

The world itself is interesting and definitely has potential, but the more I read the more it seemed that there was nothing magic couldn’t do. Want to look more beautiful? We have a spell for that. Mortally injured? A spell can fix that. Dead? We can bring you back with a spell. It became exasperating because, although the characters were in terrible danger, you knew it was going to turn out alright in the end.

There are parts of this book that I really liked. The city of Godsgrave is an intriguing setting I would have loved to see more of and the protagonist, Mia, is a compelling heroine hell-bent on revenge. I also enjoyed the political aspects of the novel, which were reminiscent of A Game of Thrones.

I’m undecided whether I will read the rest of this trilogy (the second book has just been released) but, either way, I won’t be in any hurry to do so.

Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.