Strange the Dreamer
by Laini Taylor
I've classified this as "Science Fiction," but this is dubious. Taylor lays out a pre-technological society with functional alchemy, and would have us believe that the "gods" are at least partly powered by technology, although a lot is left unexplained. And she's used this setting to lay out what amounts to an epic fantasy quest.
I went looking for a recent fantasy book to read, and this one sounded good. It's a grand adventure tale with a young protagonist who's a librarian, more or less (hey, like me). There are things to like about the book, not least the double meaning in the title - our protagonist's name is Lazlo Strange. But the writing is heavy-handed and condescending to its target audience. A teen book through and through, with nearly all our characters full of angsty feelings, lacking faith in themselves, and unable to believe anyone would care about them. I acknowledge that several of the characters have led lives that might justify that world-view, but Taylor overplays her hand in every case. And she gives many of her characters a significant obsession with kissing. Not so much sex, mind you, "we're not describing that to them because they're too young" - you can practically feel that attitude in the writing. But the part that drives me crazy is the final three words of the book: "To Be Continued." Seriously? No mention anywhere that there's a sequel and that you're going to give us a massive fucking cliffhanger? Sequel ... okay - not enthusiastic, but okay. Cliffhanger? Fuck you. It's enough to inspire me to write her a fan letter: "I read your book. And when I got to your cliffhanger ending, I was so very, very glad I got it from the library and didn't pay you a dime for this stinky turd. But you've still managed to waste multiple hours of my life."
My biggest frustration here was that I was struggling with her sophomoric writing the last couple hundred pages - and I made it through on the assumption that there would be a conclusion to the somewhat interesting story she'd laid out. But when it turned out that this was the mid-point of the story rather than the end-point ... her writing is way too angsty, pedantic, and terrible for me to struggle through another 500 pages to get to the actual ending.
I'll try to set aside my loathing of cliffhanger endings long enough to give a coherent description of the book (no spoilers: Taylor may deserve it, but you don't). Lazlo is an orphan, raised in a monastery and then a library. In the library, he spends all his spare time researching the lost city of Weep. And then through the magic of fiction, he's swept up in an expedition to go to that very city, where they find out that there was a truly horrible reason Weep was lost to the world for 200 years. Barnes and Noble's description mentions the burden of "the sins of the father being visited upon the son," and yes, it's very much about that too. I liked Lazlo, and I liked Sarai - but in over 500 pages Taylor never manages to give any of the other characters enough depth for them to be anything more than a bundle of clichés, a list of characteristics. And even Lazlo is too perfectly the charming (if angsty) orphan, too kind and accepting, to feel like a real character.
The city of Weep is a fascinating place to visit, an intriguing piece of a story. The characters aren't terribly well written. And of course the ending did me in.