This review contains spoilers throughout the text, and those spoilers are unmarked. If you do not want the plot of this book spoiled, please do not read this review until you have finished “Strange the Dreamer.”
The YA fantasy “Strange the Dreamer” is one of the most morally repugnant books I’ve ever read. The novel relies on racism, classism, and ableism as central features of the plot, and these mindsets are held by the so-called heroes. The story is a traditional white savior tale in which the white “master race” slave-owning colonialists are recast as blue-skinned demigods with magical powers.
I chose to read “Strange the Dreamer” because the author is a phenomenal writer, and her prose is imaginative, poetic, and often stunning. Laini Taylor’s gifts as a wordsmith continue to dazzle, and on a sentence level, this book did not disappoint. Even though the storytelling decisions are highly problematic, the prose is gorgeous.
But the overall pacing of “Strange the Dreamer” suffers from long sections of backstory and exposition that drag the book down, inspire a lot of confusion, and completely lose track of the plot. Many of the secondary characters in this novel are distracting and unnecessary, and I found the collection of demigods at the heart of the story to be highly unsympathetic.
The demigods live in a floating Mt. Olympus-type structure—a giant blue citadel shaped like a seraphim/winged man—which is positioned high above the city of Weep. Demigods do not possess wings, but their home is shaped like a seraphim. The blue seraphim-citadel completely covers the view of the sky. Weep has a population of 100,000 humans, and exists on a fictional planet that resembles a medieval Europe blended with modern science.
More than 200 years before the story begins, a small group of blue-skinned gods traveled from another world inside their seraphim-shaped citadel, which is equipped with futuristic super-technology in the form of four giant magnetic anchors. Arriving at the city of Weep, the gods chose the placement of their anchors carefully. Knowing they were about to enslave the entire human population of Weep, the citadel’s anchors crushed the army barracks, the university/wisdom-keepers, the royal palace, and the library.
According to the story, once the leaders, warriors, and intelligentsia of the city were annihilated, the super-powered gods had no trouble turning the surviving humans into their slaves. As slave owners, the blue-skinned gods (both male and female) behaved as sociopathic, sadistic serial killers of their human slaves. The book details that the gods regularly tortured, mutilated, and raped their human slaves for pleasure as well as a matter of course under the dehumanizing process of slavery. The gods could also put humans under various manipulative spells, controlling their emotions, minds, and bodies. Human women were raped for the militarized purpose of reproduction, birthing half-human/half-god infants, children who all possess blue skin and magical powers. These demigods are called “godspawn” in the story, which is meant as a pejorative for much of the book (a form of “demon spawn” coined by the humans), but the term is reclaimed by the godspawn characters at the end of the novel as a term of power and privilege.
For the purpose of this review, I will use the terms “god/gods” to refer to the blue-skinned master race, and the term “demigod” to refer to their godspawn. Using the term “demigod” is truer to the overall messaging in this book, since much is made of a human orphan embracing his “true identity” as a “god” and a “godspawn” at the end of the novel, an identity that gives this character tremendous power in the form of magical gifts, as well as the ability to act with moral righteousness to save Weep. For this reason, “godspawn” is not really a slur, and the term “demigod” is more suitable for the moral messaging taking place in this book.
For 200 years, the gods tortured and murdered their human slave population, and sent their young demigods away from the citadel. Fifteen years before “Strange the Dreamer” begins, the gods are all slain by one of their human slaves, a man named Eril-Fane. In a process that is unexplained in the book, Eril-Fane grows four extra arms and begins an intense moment of carnage. The six-armed warrior slays the gods and their young demigods, some of whom are only infants at the time. Then he safely collects all of the humans from the citadel, and somehow transports them from their floating prison high in the air, back to the city of Weep.
In the story, much is made of the fact that Eril-Fane “slaughtered babies.” No one questions that whatever gave him the extra arms and the flying ability might also have affected his mind, and manipulated him into acting as he did. This is a man who was under an extremely powerful psychological spell before he started his bloodbath, and yet, no one ever points out that whatever gave him the extra arms and the super-powered killing capacity might also have dictated he kill the infants as well as their parents.
But most importantly: the story fails to discuss that Eril-Fane had never seen any evidence that these demigods possessed a shred of humanity. For all Eril-Fane knew, sociopathic sadism was a genetic trait that came along with magical superpowers and blue skin.
The opening pages of “Strange the Dreamer” do not begin with Eril-Fane, though. This book begins with a brief prologue starring a demigod who has fallen to her death. In the moment right after her fall, the demigod’s “ghost” (what is described in the book as “consciousness,” “soul,” and surviving identity) rises up from her body, and examines her own corpse.
The reader learns a demigod in this story has become, or will become, a ghost: a disembodied soul.
Then the story shifts to introduce the main character Lazlo Strange, an orphan boy who was “discovered” by humans somewhere, far from the city of Weep, as a child possessing “gray skin.” Lazlo’s odd gray skin changed, however, and he soon “looked human” again. The humans who raised him knew nothing of the enslavement of Weep; they knew nothing of the blue-skinned sadistic colonialists who had taken over the city. What a reader is made to immediately notice is that Lazlo has special skin. Like the demigod who dies in the prologue, the reader knows immediately that special skin means something important in this book, even if it doesn’t mean anything to the humans who discovered this little orphan boy and named him Lazlo Strange.
Special physical features are an important trait of Laini Taylor’s storytelling ethos: her books are populated by people born with magical birthrights. Magical, beautiful bodies provide these heroes with their abilities to save themselves, each other, the world, and the universe. To put it another way: the heroes of Laini Taylor stories are born special.
Readers who enjoyed her “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” trilogy saw this with her characters of Karou and Akiva. Both are born into magical, special bodies. Akiva is a seraphim (winged warrior angel), and Karou’s pale, slender human body was lovingly, purposefully created for her by Brimstone. Madrigal, too, was born with a beautiful, special body. A body that was both wish fulfillment (in human-chimera physical traits) as well as warrior enhancement (a body well-suited for battle).
Now, I understand wish fulfillment stories. I understand why Laini Taylor makes these choices. Many people have a powerful yearning to be special. And many people understand it would be really nice if we could just be born that way: born in instant possession of a physically beautiful body, a “perfect” body that also possesses special forms of magic. Whether it is holding up our palms and repelling attackers (Karou), flying around with beautiful wings (Madrigal, Akiva), or—as is the case in “Strange the Dreamer”—possessing unique magical gifts (Lazlo Strange), of course I understand why this is an appealing trait in any story. A lot of us read books in order to possess what we cannot have in real life, whether that is meaning, purpose, growth, or the ability to mentally inhabit a beautiful body.
I don’t mind stories that present wish fulfillment bodies for me to inhabit. I see that as a primary function of story.
When I have a problem with “being born special” is when the main characters use their special abilities to be slave owners, and no one in the book calls them out on it. Or when I am given a special, blue-skinned main character who I am told is “empathetic” and “cares about humans,” but sees no problem with being a slave owner due to an embedded psychology of racism, classism, and ableism.
Laini Taylor knows her fantasy novels are primarily purchased and read by a readership of white, middle-class, able-bodied female readers, a white readership that has unfortunately inherited a brutal legacy of white colonialism. I am one of them. As a white American citizen, I fall under this category. I cannot erase all the ways I have benefited from the legacy of white colonialism. I only recognize that I have, and I try to stay aware of that fact.
Laini Taylor knows many of her white, able-bodied readers come to her books with inherent bias. Most of our bias is unconscious, we don’t see it, we are raised not to see it. It’s insidious, it’s persistent, it is always just there.
The story of “Strange the Dreamer” plays on that bias. It is assumed and used for the purpose of plot.
In any traditional white savior story, the heroes are heroes by birthright. The plot structure that leads to white savior salvation is a function of racism, classism, ableism, and colonialism. All of which played starring roles in this book.
The story centers on the question of whether or not Eril-Fane, aided by Lazlo Strange and a group of “outsiders” recruited to help, can remove the giant blue citadel from the sky above Weep. After fifteen years of being free of the gods, Eril-Fane is determined to be rid of that gigantic hunk of super-tech-magical-blue-metal looming over his city.
I mean, who could blame him, right? What an eyesore. Not to mention, how does that giant blue citadel affect all the gardens and crops growing in Weep? The impact of removing all direct sunlight (and moonlight) from plant life is never explained in the book. The reader must simply accept that the people of Weep can still grow all their food and live beneath the giant blue angel of the dead blue colonialists.
Except they’re not all dead. Unknown to Eril-Fane, a six-year-old demigod named Minya rushed into the nursery during his bloodbath, saved four other demigod children, and escaped unharmed. She picked up two infants (carrying one in each arm) and also saved two (two-year-old) toddlers. One of those toddlers was Sarai, the beautiful demigod who has fallen to her death in the prologue.
As Lazlo Strange joins Eril-Fane on a long journey to Weep, the story switches from Lazlo’s point of view to Sarai’s point of view, and we learn about her life in the citadel.
Minya, it turns out, inherited a sociopathic sadism from her blue-skinned father. Right after saving the four little demigods from the bloodbath of Eril-Fane, she used her magical superpower to re-enslave twelve of the humans Eril-Fane had set free. And she didn’t stop there: every human who has died in Weep for the past fifteen years has been turned into a slave in the citadel by Minya. The effort came with a large consequence: Minya’s growth has been halted. So, while she is actually 21 when the story takes place, she still looks like her six-year-old child-self. By using her magic to re-enslave former slaves, Minya’s own body stopped growing.
The process of Minya’s magical enslavement is described at length in the book, and Sarai does use the term “slaves” for these people—once, on page 460—for the human beings Minya controls.
But Sarai doesn’t ever call the slaves human beings. They are called “ghosts.” Sometimes they are “ghost servants,” “ghost guards,” or “ghost pets.”
Similar to the world-building Laini Taylor employed in “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” after a person dies, their “soul”—which contains their consciousness, memories, creative mind, and the entirety of their identity—lingers over their body for a bit. Then the soul “drifts up” into the sky, where the soul eventually dissipates, or evanesces. This is described in the book as the process of death, or the annihilation of self.
Minya creates her slaves by waiting for the souls of dead humans to drift up into the sky. Perched high in the citadel, she catches their souls, and magically recreates their dead human bodies. The humans awake in their new bodies, and the story makes it clear—in several sadistic scenes of Minya and the other demigods mocking, belittling, and torturing these people—that these slaves retain all memory of who they are, as well as their memories of being enslaved by the gods.
The novel calls them “ghosts” but they are not dead—they are a re-embodied consciousness. And no, this is not something “unique” Laini Taylor has invented. For instance, a lot of people saw the 2009 blockbuster fantasy action film, “Avatar,” written and directed by James Cameron. In that movie, human “souls” (identical to how “Strange the Dreamer” defines “souls”) are removed from their human bodies with scientific technology, and placed inside special “avatar” bodies identical to the blue-skinned native peoples who live on Pandora. These “avatar bodies” possess no consciousness until a human soul is placed into them. At the end of the movie, Jake Sully’s human body dies after his soul is permanently removed from his original body and placed into the blue-skinned body he has used for most of the movie.
At no point in that film would the audience refer to Jake Sully in avatar form as “a ghost.” He is not dead, his soul is simply in a new body. Even after his original body dies at the end of the movie, and he permanently lives in a new (“magically created”) avatar body, he is not “a ghost.” He is Jake Sully, alive and well. He is the hero of the story, and he is also viewed as a full “human being,” albeit a human who is now also a member of a non-human race, since the story shows he has been fully embraced by his blue-skinned tribe on Pandora.
I approached Minya’s creation of slaves in “Strange the Dreamer” the same way. Just because a person’s physical body is dead or beyond their control, does not mean their “soul” is no longer fully human, or can no longer be viewed as “fully alive.” Like my enjoyment of “Avatar,” I can fully accept that human consciousness can transcend the limits and confinements of the physical body.
And it is important to note: this mindset is as true in real life as it is in fantasy. In real life, people suffer traumatic brain injuries, concussions, strokes, and other physical damage or breakdown that can remove their ability to control their own bodies. Sometimes, these people can regain control of their physical bodies. Other times, spinal injuries and nerve damage make regaining control of their bodies impossible. Sometimes people are born with bodies they can never control. That does not mean these people are “dead” or should be called “ghosts.” A person who is still capable of conscious thought is still fully alive.
A person who will never recover their consciousness is given the medical label of “brain-dead” even though their body survives. The important distinction is that qualifying term “brain” in the label. They are “brain-dead,” not “dead.” This terminology matters a great deal.
In “Strange the Dreamer,” all humans who die in the story still possess conscious thought. All of their memories, imagination, and identity are held in their “soul.” For this reason, a “ghost” in “Strange the Dreamer” is the living consciousness of a person: capable of thought, making new memories, and interacting with their environment. Just like the re-embodied consciousness of Jake Sully in “Avatar,” a “ghost” in “Strange the Dreamer” is still entirely alive, and therefore, still a human being.
But “ghost bodies” are very different from the “avatar body” Jake Sully inhabits. In “Strange the Dreamer,” Minya’s re-enslaved human slaves can control their own bodies only if Minya lets them. In the novel, Minya rarely gives any of her slaves any autonomy. Instead, she controls their bodies as extensions of her own will.
Minya is incredibly cruel to her human slaves. She plays sadistic games with them, takes pleasure in abusing them, and the other four demigods in the citadel abuse these slaves, too. When the reader first meets the demigod Ruby, she has been “kissing” a slave in the citadel, despite the fact the slave did not want to kiss her, and Ruby laughs and mocks the slave afterward. A few minutes later, when the demigods sit down to supper, Minya brings in a new slave to show them, a man who has recently died and awoken in his magical body, a body Minya fully controls. In a scene laden with cruelty, the demigods all participate in mocking the man, who falls to his knees, consumed by “raw horror” (page 105).
As a human being reading this story, I immediately connected with this slave, a man named Ari-Eil. Even though Laini Taylor took great pains to make me connect with her main character, the beautiful, special, magically-gifted Sarai, it was Ari-Eil who gripped me as a reader. It was the fate of Ari-Eil that held me spellbound, and absolutely horrified, as I watched the powerful demigods mock and belittle him. Ari-Eil had survived being enslaved by the gods, and now he is alive and well in a slave body he cannot even control: a consciousness trapped in a fantasy form of enslavement that takes the word “evil” to a whole new level.
Minya cannot control what her slaves think and feel. Their eyes emote, and many times in the book, Sarai notes the obvious disconnect between the emotions in the eyes of the slaves, and the servile behaviors Minya forces them to adopt.
The novel goes to great lengths to refer to these people as “ghosts” and completely dehumanize them. I never dehumanized these slaves though, they were *always* human beings to me, and here are two questions I was desperate to ask as a reader, questions I kept expecting the book to explain:
- Can a slave body feel? If any of the demigods were to take pity on the slaves, and try to comfort them, could a slave “feel” a hug? Or any kind of tender touch—brushing their hair, stroking a cheek, holding a hand? Could the slaves feel such things? Near the end of the book, Minya uses a nine-year-old slave to speak to Sarai in a menacing way, to scare and belittle Sarai, and I desperately wanted Sarai to stop viewing that little child as “a dead thing” and hold her. I wanted Sarai to tell the little slave girl, “I know you’re alive. I know you’re trapped in this body, and I promise you, I swear to you, I’ll find a way to get you free.” Sarai never humanized the slaves though, and this “wow, slavery is super evil and we should not have slaves” mindset I wished Sarai would adopt never appeared in the book.
- Can a slave dream? The story makes sure to point out that dreaming and the unconscious mind are vital to conscious thought and survival. Sarai’s magical gift is to be able to enter the unconscious mind of people while they are asleep. She does this a lot with “living humans” in the story, most especially Lazlo. But did Sarai ever try to enter the mind of a slave? Did she ever land one of her magical moths on a slave’s brow, to see if she could enter a dream state of a slave? The answer is no, Sarai never did that, because the slaves were “dead things” to her, they were dehumanized “ghosts,” not people.
These two questions of mine were never raised in the book. Not by Lazlo, not by Sarai, and not by the omniscient narrative voice the prose sometimes embraces.
Even though Sarai has spent many years entering the dreaming minds of the “living” humans of Weep, and inflicting horrible nightmares upon them, Sarai does not view their souls as their essential humanity. Sarai states that she has developed empathy for humans, and even though she recognizes the slaves she belittles and mocks with the other demigods, she never sees them as “human.” They are ghosts, dehumanized dead things, and she says more than once that she cannot free the “ghosts” because they would kill her.
Which is a completely nonsensical argument. A “freed ghost” would no longer have a physical body. Sarai is in no danger of being harmed by any disembodied soul. The story makes it clear that a soul without a body cannot manipulate physical matter at all. So there is no danger of being killed by one of Minya’s freed slaves. Sarai also wants the reader to believe that these dehumanized “ghosts” are mindless killers who would slaughter their savior, if Sarai set them free, so Sarai can only survive by keeping them enslaved.
Which is the same argument a lot of white colonialists gave against freeing their slaves. The same argument slave owners shoved into the faces of abolitionists for many years. History matters. Reality matters. Sarai uses an argument many white colonialists have used before her. So good job, Laini Taylor, with Sarai’s colonialist worldview: it’s highly believable and historically accurate.
For anyone who wants to argue that Sarai is not a slave-owning demigod, since Minya created and controls all of these slaves, let’s take the example of “Gone with the Wind.” Scarlett O’Hara starts that story at the age of sixteen, at the onset of the U.S. Civil War. Scarlett is cared for by a slave called Mammy, and since the book is set in the American South, Mammy is still a slave when Scarlett turns seventeen, the age of Sarai in “Strange the Dreamer.” Scarlett is a slave owner: she is a white member of marrying age in a slave-owning household. Scarlett’s family either bought or inherited the slave Mammy, but that doesn’t make Scarlet any less a slave owner. Mammy directly cares for Scarlett by washing her clothes, bringing her food to eat, cleaning her rooms for her. All of these activities are performed by Sarai’s slaves as well. Sarai is directly cared for by people who work for no money, entirely against their will.
Anyone who wants to argue that Mammy was delighted to be a slave in the American South, spending her entire life caring for Scarlett O’Hara, please don’t even bother. I want nothing to do with whatever KKK-pipe you are smoking. The argument that some people “like” being slaves, or “like” being forced into positions of perpetual economic servitude by working for “slave wages,” is morally wrong. It is also classist and racist. I’m not writing a review to convince anyone that slavery is morally wrong. I take that as a given. Slavery can only exist with a combination of extreme violence and dehumanization. Which means anyone who is engaged in a system of enslaving another person is guilty of immoral behavior. I view any system of slavery as immoral, cruel, horrifying, and evil.
Sarai and the other demigods never state that slavery is morally wrong. They certainly never call slavery “evil.” Sarai never admits that she is a slave owner, and she never calls Minya a slave master. Sarai never admits to any wrongdoing in the story.
Sarai tells the reader she has “empathy” for humans. Her empathy means she does not want to kill “living” humans. She never expresses a desire to free the enslaved humans she lives with. On the contrary, she tacitly embraces the view that freeing the slaves means she and the other demigods would have to do their own chores, and for this reason, the demigods do not view “what Minya is doing” as wrong (page 296).
Lazlo tells the reader Sarai is not at fault for Minya’s slaves. According to Lazlo, the blame of slavery falls on Minya alone (page 412).
Like the character of Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” Laini Taylor goes to great lengths to show the reader that the “ghost” slaves who care for the demigods in the citadel are happy, and have benefited from their enslavement. In what is perhaps the most ignorantly cruel scene in the book, Laini Taylor even directs Ari-Eil, who has only been a slave for “a few days” by the end of the novel, to save Minya’s life as an act of his own volition. In reality, the first few days of enslavement are the hardest for any slave, when the rate of suicide is highest. The slavers who traveled the coast of Africa for centuries all had to keep equipment on their ships for force-feeding slaves, as starvation was the preferred method of suicide for most slaves, and they committed suicide in high numbers. Violent slave revolts were also frequent, common, and killed many slavers. Freedom is paramount to anyone who is enslaved.
Given the realities of slavery, Ari-Eil would not save Minya’s life. There is no reason for him to do so. She is his slave master. He cannot be free while she lives. He has only been a slave a few days, and Minya has inflicted many atrocities upon him.
She even used Ari-Eil to attack Eril-Fane, with the intent to murder the man who freed all the humans fifteen years ago, and the story makes clear that Minya plans to use Ari-Eil for this purpose again: to hack apart “living humans” with knives and meat hooks. The slave-battle began after Eril-Fane traveled up to the citadel upon a silk sleigh, and for Ari-Eil, there is no doubt the sight of Eril-Fane would represent his salvation: the hero who saved every person in Weep. A savior Minya now plans to force Ari-Eil to kill.
During that fight scene, Minya accidentally let some of her slaves cross an “invisible barrier” at the edge of the citadel, and something broke the entrapment spell on a few of her slaves. These slave bodies “melted” and freed the trapped souls of the people inside. As their bodies “faded” away, these freed people were overcome by “a look of sweetest, purest relief” (page 333). Whatever happened in this scene, whatever this “boundary” was made of, very few slaves “escaped” Minya’s hold, since she quickly pulled them back toward her to keep from losing more. Eril-Fane is then able to leave the citadel unharmed.
None of the demigods question what happened, or care. Lazlo Strange watches the event take place, and the reader sees this scene through his point of view. He does not question Sarai about the event; they do not even discuss it later, when Sarai joins Lazlo that night in a dream. Lazlo and Sarai spend a long time together in that scene, and discuss many things, but this “barrier” and the chance of freeing Minya’s slaves is never mentioned.
As a slave engaged in that battle, I assume Ari-Eil witnessed what happened. I assume Ari-Eil witnessed the euphoria, or “the delirium of release,” waiting for him once he is freed from enslavement (page 333).
So in the final moments of “Strange the Dreamer,” when the citadel suddenly tips sideways, and Minya loses her balance, Ari-Eil would let her fall, and die, and therefore be freed of her torture. Minya wants her slaves to kill Eril-Fane, the “godslayer” who freed every human in Weep. To Ari-Eil, Minya represents the complete re-enslavement of every person in Weep. He has been given no assurances by any demigod in the story that human slavery is wrong. None of the demigods have told Ari-Eil—or any other slave in their citadel—that they don’t plan to re-enslave the entire population of Weep as “ghosts.”
For Ari-Eil, “staying alive” as a slave is not life. It is horror. And Ari-Eil cannot even control his own body, other than in that split second when Minya is about to fall to her death, loses her mental control over him, and he reaches down to save her. For Laini Taylor to write a scene in which this particular slave is the one who reaches down to save his slave master is egregiously ignorant and morally wrong. It shows a willful disregard for the realities and horrors of slavery. It shows a complete lack of empathy for the character of Ari-Eil in this book.
Slavery is not something that ended in 1865. It is alive and well all over the world. Whether it takes the form of sex trafficking, or caged humans whipped into work, or kidnapping victims trapped in the personal homes of sadists, or the power agendas of terrorist groups like ISIS or Boko Haram, slavery is a constant horror that people continue to perpetuate on each other.
I have never personally suffered the horrors of slavery, but people of all ages, all backgrounds, and all nations live within the violent dehumanization of slavery every day. Likewise, I have never experienced a condition that caused me to lose control of my physical body, but plenty of people face physical and mental disability every day. Like Sarai, I have possessed an able body since birth. But I have never viewed any person with a completely disabled body as a “ghost,” and I certainly don’t believe that anyone with a disabled body is any less human than I am.
In “Strange the Dreamer,” Sarai maintains her dehumanized views of Minya’s slaves throughout the entire novel. And Lazlo Strange, Sarai’s lover, views Sarai as blameless. A large portion of the book details Sarai’s many visits to see Lazlo in his dreams, since he is the only “human” who has ever seen Sarai’s physical body, or been able to speak with her, in a dream.
It didn’t surprise me to learn Lazlo Strange had special dream skills. The story had already made it clear that Lazlo had been born special: he’d been found with gray skin as a child, and the skin on his hands turns gray when he touches the metal of the citadel. Sarai does not fall in love with a dehumanized person in this book. She falls in love with someone like herself: a person in possession of magical skills.
And after 467 pages, as the book suddenly increases its pacing to throw all of these characters into an action-packed ending, the reader watches as Lazlo Strange is transformed, and his body finally displays his true nature: he is a blue-skinned demigod, in possession of the single most powerful gift of the gods: Lazlo can manipulate mesarthium—the magical blue metal of the citadel—with his mind. He can shape the metal instantly into anything he desires, a skill that took no effort to learn. His ability simply comes to him, immediately, in the moment he needs it.
The entire ending of this book is a giant deus ex machina. After reading pages and pages of Lazlo and Sarai kissing in Lazlo’s whimsical dreamscape of conscious-unconsciousness, I admit I found the action of the final pages a welcome reprieve from romantic tedium. But I’d be lying if I didn’t also point out that the entire ending hinged on a series of random events and coincidence.
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this book that after Sarai falls to her death, her disembodied soul drifts up to the citadel, Minya catches her soul, and turns Sarai into a “ghost.” Sarai has spent the entire book dehumanizing Minya’s slaves, and now she is one of them. “Strange the Dreamer” ends with Sarai’s sudden realization that she is now completely under the control of a sociopathic, sadistic demigod. And since Lazlo is desperate to keep Sarai alive, Lazlo is now Minya’s slave, too: under her control, lest Minya destroy Sarai’s slave body, and release Sarai’s soul to die.
“Strange the Dreamer” will have a sequel, a book that will be named after Sarai’s demigod title: “The Muse of Nightmares.” I expect Laini Taylor might explain the purpose of all those other demigod babies the gods produced by the militarized rape of humans, a system that lasted for 200 years. And I expect she might explain why the blue-skinned colonialist gods revere the seraphim so much, and travel around in a citadel shaped like a seraphim. And I expect she might explain if the seraphim in “Strange the Dreamer” are the same genocidal seraphim from “Daughter of Smoke and Bone.”
There is a good chance “The Muse of Nightmares” will redeem Minya’s behavior, since her form of enslavement “keeps people alive.” Sarai would be dead if Minya hadn’t caught her soul and given her a magical body. The same is true of Ari-Eil and all of Minya’s other slaves: they are alive because of Minya. Without her, everyone would be dead.
There is an even greater likelihood that Sarai’s lack of empathy for the slaves in the citadel will never be dealt with in the second book. I suspect Sarai will be allowed to assume “solidarity” with the slaves because she is now “one of them.” For the record, this is NOT empathy. This is a wake-up call. Sarai suddenly feeling “empathy” for Minya’s slaves because she is now “one of them” is like listening to people who condemn gay men for being “evil and against God,” and then discover their own son is gay and realize, “Aw shucks, I don’t want to hate my own son, I guess God loves gay people, too.” Being moved to compassion because you suddenly find yourself on the sh*t-end of oppression is NOT empathy. That’s called realizing you are f*cked by a power system you once supported, and now you’re desperately trying to un-f*ck yourself.
I have no desire to read an apologist story for slavery. Sarai owned slaves, she benefited from slaves, and her behavior was morally wrong. She haunted the dreams of the population of Weep for many years, using the worst memories of those people to inflict trauma-inducing nightmares. Those dreams also taught her the ugly history of Weep. Sarai knew full well what slavery looked like. If “The Muse of Nightmares” uses its pages to profess Sarai’s innocence about the realities of slavery, that would be a complete lie, and contradict the characterization of Sarai in “Strange the Dreamer.”
For anyone who believes Laini Taylor invented something new by creating a “ghost army” of resurrected souls/human slaves in her novel, I would like to draw attention to the phenomenal fantasy novel, “Heart’s Blood,” by Juliet Marillier (published in 2009). “Heart’s Blood” took all of the same themes in “Strange the Dreamer,” including the sadistic creation of an enslaved “ghost army,” and countered the message of power in every way, most especially the cruelty of ableism that afflicted “Strange the Dreamer” so much. “Heart’s Blood” is a triumph of empathy. The reader never has to be told the main character possesses “empathy,” because the reader is *shown* the main character’s empathy, through actions and words, time and time again, until the end of the book.
Laini Taylor has been one of my personal heroes for years. Reading “Strange the Dreamer,” and encountering Sarai’s dismissal of the wrongness of slavery, had a horrible impact on me. I felt betrayed by an author I trusted, an author who packaged a colonialist white savior tale in a blue-skinned bow. To read a book so laden with racism, ableism, and classism inflicted tremendous pain on me as a reader. The length of this review is a tribute to my shock and devastation.
“Strange the Dreamer” has earned rave reviews from many, many professional book critics. Which means it will probably win a lot of awards. The number of 5-star reviews for this book on Goodreads is high. This, too, is devastating. This, too, is reality: the reality of a system of power that showers rewards on those who open their mouths and their pens to speak for it, and keep it alive.