Little, Brown and Company, 2017
Lazlo Strange, found as an abandoned baby during Kingdom of Zosma’s “war about nothing,” has been raised by monks until, at 13, he is sent on an errand to the great Library of Zosma. Once there, he gradually becomes a librarian and a compulsive reader of histories of Weep, the once-great city that mysteriously disappeared 200 years ago. Generous, intelligent, dreamy, Lazlo is inconspicuous until an entourage rides into town, led by Eril-Fane the Godslayer – the man who has saved Weep from its oppressors. Eril-Fane asks Zosma’s leading intellectuals to come to Weep and save it from “the shadow that haunts it,” and Lazlo manages to join them. After a six-month trek across the desert that separates the two countries, Lazlo sees with a shock that “the shadow” is literal: a citadel that hovers over the city in the form of a huge seraph, shadowing it from all light, and made of metal that resists all forms of wear or destruction. It was inflicted upon Weep 200 years ago by the Mesarthim, six magical beings who (readers slowly discover) abducted all Weep’s adolescents and sent them back some years later with their memories of their abuse erased. The babies resulted from these two centuries of atrocity are called godspawn. Or they were. Eril-Fane, the hero who killed the Mesarthim after two years of adolescent enslavement to the Goddess of Despair, also killed the infant godspawn he found in the citadel’s nursery. The deed has shattered his soul; nothing is left of him but his determination to save his people.
Unbeknown to the people of Weep (including Eril-Fane), five godspawn escaped his sword 15 years ago, and they still live in the citadel. One of these is Sarai, a beautiful, sensitive girl whose godly gift enables her to afflict chosen victims with nightmares. Her chief victim is Eril-Fane, her father. When Lazlo arrives in Weep, Sarai visits him to inflict nightmares upon him, but unlike her other victims, he can see her as long as he is asleep. They have a magical romance, hoping that their love can cure two centuries of hatred and oppression. The book’s climactic conclusion demonstrates the tragic limitation of young love in a world of hate and violence. Reconciliation and peace will have to await the fantasy’s second volume.
Strange the Dreamer is first-rate fantasy. Its setting and history are carefully thought out; its plot gradually builds in intensity and its characters are entirely convincing. Its chief virtue, however, lies in its ability to meditate on issues that resonate far beyond the page, particularly the psychological effects of misused power. Lazlo Strange, abused by the monks who have saved him and belittled by the scholars he serves in the library, is so self-deprecating that he almost fails to demonstrate his command of Weep’s language and history when Eril-Fane is choosing intellectuals to save the city. The Queen of Zosma’s handsome godson Thyon Nero, the city’s alchemist, is brutally beaten by his father for not delivering gold to the country’s treasury; he reacts by plagiarizing Lazlo’s extensive notes on Weep. Weep’s citizens so hate the Mesarthim for abusing their children that they kill godspawn on sight, thus slaughtering their grandchildren. As Sarai tells Lazlo, kind and honorable people are capable of doing terrible things if they are subjected to violence. The book never preaches, but its portrayal of political and personal damage is brilliant.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.