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!

The Dream Chooses the Dreamer: Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer

Sometimes, everything about a book is just right. While many books have lovely covers, only few manage to offer a story that equals it. This is a book where the feelings you get when you look at the cover (I have the UK edition which is my absolute favorite) actually give you a hint of what you’ll find inside. Something magical and strange, where the color blue is important, where moths are more than just annoying creatures that come out at night… I loved everything about this book!

STRANGE THE DREAMER
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Hodder & Stougthon, 2017
Hardcover: 536 pages
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s 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 the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

There are some books that take a while to draw you in, to make you feel part of their world, to turn characters from strangers into friends. Not this book! From the very first chapter, I was captivated, I wanted to learn everything about the world into which Laszlo Strange had been born. When I read that Laszlo’s nose had been broken by a book of fairy tales, I was already utterly in love with him – and so will many other book lovers.

Strange the Dreamer is about many things, but at its core, it is about a city. A city Laszlo first encountered in stories he heard as a child, a city filled with magical beasts, and brave warriors, and colorful markets. When one day, Laszlo – and everybody else – loses that city’s name from his mind and memory, he knows magic is real and wants to solve the mystery of what is now called Weep. I don’t think it’s a spoiler when I say that the city is by no means a fairytale and it has much bigger problems than a missing name… And Laszlo of course wants to solve them.

It is a rare book that gets me so emotional in such a short span of time. At the very beginning, when we still get to know Laszlo Strange and his life as an apprentice librarian, we watch him play Tizerkane – one of the legendary warriors from the city of Weep. I got so swept up in his dreams that I wanted the legends to be real as much as Laszlo did. When, shortly after that, something happens to Laszlo that is brutally unfair, I felt real anger on his behalf. I was only a few chapters into the book and already I felt like Laszlo was my friend! That is no small feat and I can only applaud Laini Taylor for it. She is equally deft with her other characters. Whether we’re meant to love or hate them, see them for the multi-layered people that they are, be uncertain of whether we like them – she does it all beautifully and has created a cast of amazing characters that will stay with me for a long time.

As the title would suggest, this book is like falling into a dream and the writing style goes perfectly with that theme. Lush descriptions, beautiful quotable passages, natural-sounding dialogue – I couldn’t find a fault with it even if I tried to nitpick. In fact, this book was so gorgeous (inside and out) that I dragged it  out the further I got to the end. I know there’s a second book – it has moved onto my shelf in the meantime – but the longer I can spend with Laszlo and the others, the better.

Speaking of the others, there are quite a few and all of them are interesting, even though I wouldn’t want to know all of them in real life. Thyon Nero, an alechemist prodigy, may not be in direct competition with Laszlo (as a librarian, he doesn’t exactly have a high social status), but he is something like Laszlo’s childhood rival, nonetheless. But although he seems to be the first “villain”, we soon learn that there is more to Nero than meets the eye. Sure, he may be a jerk most of the time, but there are reasons for that and it’s not that he’s a bad person, he’s just a victim of circumstance.
On the other hand, we have characters like Sarai, who became an immediate favorite. I won’t say much about her because although we meet her early in the book, there are a few twists and surprises that I don’t want to spoil for you. Let’s just say that she leads a pretty difficult life, filled with magic and monsters and moths. Yes, you read that right – moths. The cover isn’t just pretty (soooo pretty), it is actually meaningful. Sarai’s inner conflict would have been enough to fill an entire book, but pairing her story with Laszlo’s created something new and wonderful.
Then there’s Eril-Fane, lauded as a hero who has saved his city, and sure… he kind of did that. But again, there is way more to his story than you may think at first.

It’s quite difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. And it’s not even that there are that many plot twists, but the way Laini Taylor slowly unveils the secrets of her story is so utterly perfect that I don’t want to ruin it for you guys. She puts characters we love into impossible situations, she gives us moments of pure bliss, and moments of absolute desperation. And, at the end, she  puts a knife in our hearts and twists it around – because authors are evil, I guess. But, you know, the good kind of evil.

This was a story that will stay with me for a long time. Reading it was a wonderful experience, trying to figure out how to solve the various problems, speculating where the story might go, it was just pure fun. I haven’t been this emotionally engaged in a book for a while and although I really want to know how the story ends, I am also a little hesitant. Because once I’ve finished the second book, it will truly be over.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!