My Heart Is Bursting: Laini Taylor – Muse of Nightmares

This was SO. BEAUTIFUL. I had saved this book for when I needed a treat and it was exactly that! A literary treat where every page is better than the one before, a story that made me laugh and cry, characters I wish I were friends with, and a kick-ass plot that I didn’t think could be resolved (spoiler: Laini Taylor totally resolves it!). WARNING: Huge, gigantic, massive (seriously) spoilers for Strange the Dreamer below! If you haven’t read Strange the Dreamer, don’t even read the synopsis of this book.

MUSE OF NIGHTMARES
by Laini Taylor

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
Hardcover: 522 pages
Series: Strange the Dreamer #2
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: Kora and Nova had never seen the Mesarthim, but they knew all about them.

Sarai has lived and breathed nightmares since she was six years old.
She believed she knew every horror, and was beyond surprise.
She was wrong.

In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.
Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice–save the woman he loves, or everyone else?–while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she’s capable of.
As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel’s near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?
Love and hate, revenge and redemption, destruction and salvation all clash in this gorgeous sequel to the New York Times bestseller, Strange the Dreamer.

The attentive reader of the opening line will notice that it is neither about Laszlo Strange nor Sarai, nor anyone else who has featured in the first book of this duology. Instead, we start with two sisters, Kora and Nova, who live in a place of ice and snow, where their only hope of a better life is to be taken by the Mesarthim in one of their metal airships. It is unclear whether these events happened a long time ago, but I was immediately intrigued, not least because we see Skathis the smith, but he is far from the tyrannical force we know he’ll become…

It took me all of five pages for my first exclamation of “this is AMAZING” because Laini Taylor managed to make me – someone who was yearning for more Strange and Sarai – care about these two completely new characters who were keeping me from returning to my favorites. Instead of impatiently rushing through Kora and Nova’s chapter, they became two new favorites whose sisterly bond was tangible right from the start.They don’t get many chapters in this book and the ones we get are far between but I was always happy to return to their story and see how it all ties into Strange’s adventure. And Laini Taylor being Laini Taylor, it all makes sense in the end and tells a story that’s so much bigger than I had expected.

But first things first. We return to Laszlo, Sarai, and the others in the terrible situation that the first book left them in. Sarai is dead, her ghost held only by Minya’s power, and Laszlo is a god who can control mesarthium. But Minya is still on her warpath and Sarai’s death played straight into her hands. Using her sister’s life to blackmail Laszlo into doing her – Minya’s – bidding seems almost too good to be true. Finally, she can get her revenge on the godslayer; finally she can show the people of Weep what it’s like to have your people wiped out. And if Laszlo wants to prevent mass slaughter, all he has to do is give up the girl he loves…

Laini Taylor does this several times. She puts her characters into impossible situations that couldn’t possible end well for everyone. There are no easy answers, there seems no way out that doesn’t end in tears, and death, and despair. But Taylor also creates amazing characters with agency who, after more than 500 pages, still managed to surprise me. I’m not going to give anything away here, but whenever I thought one bomb had been defused, a different one followed it and it was way worse than the previous one. Putting these beloved characters into ever more difficult situations in which they have to face choices that nobody should have to make wasn’t great for my blood pressure but it makes for a damn good story!
I’m happy to say – both from an emotional and an appreciative-of-the-plot-twists way – that things get… resolved. I’m not saying it’s all good or easy, but the plot managed to reach a very satisfying conclusion, wrapping up all its little side plot strings, tying them in a neat (albeit not perfect) bow and making me close the book with a sigh.

But the killer plot isn’t the only thing that’s great about Muse of Nightmares. In fact, the beginning was a little slow and for a few chapters, I thought “well, this is lovely, but I’m not feeling it the way I did the first book”. That all changed after a while, and not least because of the phenomenal characters. With the cast growing ever larger, there isn’t much time to spend with each side character such as Thyon Nero or Eril-Fane, but when we do read from their perspective, the author makes it count. Nero was so easy to despise in the first book, until we learned about his inner conflict and the reasons that turned him into the jerk he is. In this book, he actually grows! He tries to see things from a different perspective and he finds himself longing for friendship and a place to truly belong. I would have laughed if you’d told me that, after finishing this duology, I’d actually like Nero, this arrogant golden boy wunderkind who’s too good for everyone else! But I do, I really do!

Which leads me nicely into the question of villains. Because there aren’t any… or at least not in the way that you’d expect. The only truly evil characters in this story have been dead long before Strange the Dreamer started, but all the antagonists are usually just… people. Nobody is all good here, but then again, nobody is all bad either. Even Minya – that little ball of crazy – is shown as a sympathetic character who has her own struggles to deal with. Sure, some characers’ reactions to trauma are more radical than others’ but Laini Taylor made me care about everyone on every side of the various divides, so I never had a “side” to root for because I wanted everyone to win. Even if one person “winning” meant that, inevitably, someone else would lose – and this feeling permeates the whole series, showing war for what it is – something that can only make everyone lose. There’s no good guys and bad guys, it’s not just “let’s kill the evil orcs and then the land will be free” because the “evil orcs” are also people whose motives (if not their methods) are as understandable as those of the other guys.

I wish I had a better grasp of the English language to convey just how beautiful Laini Taylor’s writing is. Her prose is lyrical, painting pictures in my head that effortlessly come to life, but she’s also great at dialogue. That was made all the more apparent by Laszlo and Sarai’s first shared moments, those little snippets of time where they could be themselves, not think of their problems, and simply learn to be with each other. Although there are some declarations of love, they are never cheesy. At turns shy, then humerous again, then full of hope and dreams (always dreams), they felt like actual people who had been yearning for each other and finally get the chance to fall asleep in each other’s arms for the first time.

Wishes don’t just come true. They’re only the target you paint around what you want. You still have to hit the bull’s eye yourself.

About the world building: Laini Taylor has set up most of this world in the first book, so there’s not a lot of new things to discover. Or so I thought! Apart from those flashback chapters to Kora and Nova and their interactions with the Mesarthim, Laszlo’s gift opens new possibilities and lets us learn more about Weep and its past and Skathis and the gods. There were several open questions from the first book that all get answered here, and then some.
I should have seen it coming because in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Taylor also started with a small slice of the world and then opened it up to something waaaay bigger in the sequels, but in this duology, I figured we’d mostly read about Weep and its culture. Without spoiling, there is far more to this world than first meets the eye, and – to use Dirk Gently’s words – IT’S ALL CONNECTED. When the puzzle pieces fell into place in my head, I actually put down the book and jumped around the room because I felt like a giddy child who had discovered something great about the universe.
That’s about as specific as I can get without spoiling the surprise. Just trust me that I’m not mad, I am just really excited about Taylor’s world buildling and the way it all makes so much sense.

As much as I didn’t want this book to end, I raced through the second half of it. Revelation followed revelation, the stakes grew ever higher, a happy ending ever more unlikely. I mentioned that the beginning was a bit slow, but it all pays off in the end. The pieces that were set up all come together, everyone has their role to place, and there was never a good place to stop reading. I can already feel the book hangover coming…
There were so many moments that brought tears to my eyes, and not because something tragic happens (well, not always). After spending almost 1000 pages with these characters and growing to care about them, the smallest thing would set me off. A small gesture, a word spoken in friendship when I’d expected hate, someone being brave when they didn’t have to be, someone showing compassion when it would have been easier to kill the opponent… This book was just deeply, deeply moving on many levels and yet again – just like in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy – Laini Taylor managed to nail the ending, giving us enough closure to leave this story with a feeling of having reached The End, but making clear that the characters’ story is far from over.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

3 thoughts on “My Heart Is Bursting: Laini Taylor – Muse of Nightmares

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