Book Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters

dreams of gods and monstersDreams of Gods and Monsters
by Laini Taylor
Published by: Little, Brown & Company
Form: Purchased Hardback
Big Themes: War, Peace, Love, Friendship, Death, Reincarnation, Fate, Prophets, Angels, Chimaera, Universe, Multiple Dimensions, Rebuilding, Wishes

This is a spoiler-free review.

The final installment of the trilogy that began with Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  Karou is fighting for peace for her people against insurmountable odds.  She finally has people she can trust and allies on her side, but will it be enough?  The future balances on a precipice and could tip either way…

Review of Book 1: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Review of Book 2: Days of Blood and Starlight

A Conflicted Review:

I’m breaking from my usual review format because this review is tough enough to write without being constricted to a template.  This series was vying for a spot in my Top 5 Books of All-Time.  I’ve spent much of today reading other people’s reviews of Dreams of Gods and Monsters, and most people love it.  I can’t say I feel the same love.  It was good.  But I am disappointed more than in love.

I feel an overwhelming sense of irony because in my final words of my review of Book 2, I wrote:

“It is rare that I have total confidence in the author to finish a series when I’m only on the second book of a trilogy. I have total confidence that Laini Taylor will have a perfect third and final book, and I can’t wait to see how she pulls the whole thing together.”

It rips me apart to say I’m disappointed in this book because I sincerely believe Laini Taylor is a genius when it comes to writing.  I wonder if I just don’t understand what her vision was, or if I’m justified in my dissatisfaction as a reader.  So I’m going to express why I was disappointed, without spoilers, and I definitely invite discussion in the comments.

I was so excited for this book that I purchased the book on the day it came out.  But as I began reading, I started to get an uneasy feeling that perhaps this wasn’t going to be as satisfying a conclusion as I hoped.  The first reason for this uneasy feeling was the book’s pacing.

I have a low tolerance for slow pacing in general.  But in this case, it wasn’t just that there was a lack of action or suspense.  The pacing was slow because of point-of-view changes.  The book would repeatedly switch to the POV of completely new characters that were just being introduced in this final book.

The problem with this is that I have no emotional attachment to these newbie characters, nor did Taylor build emotional attachment for me.  There were times where I actually felt like Taylor was instructing me to care.  “Hey!  You should like and care about this person!  She’s cool.”  I never once felt like this particular character did anything to earn my respect and admiration.  We got a heck of a lot of backstory, that I think was supposed to make me sympathize and understand.  It didn’t have that effect.  Instead I found myself bored whenever the POV would switch to a newbie character (and there were many newbie characters, not just one).

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the newbie characters: they were all immensely powerful.  The newbie characters were all stronger than the original cast of characters.  And rather than let the original cast of characters fight through and solve the major conflicts of the novel… the newbie characters solved some of the most major conflicts.  This had a very deus ex machina feel.  I really struggle with this because I think Laini Taylor must have had some purpose behind her decision to allow new characters to resolve the overarching conflict.  I think she’s too smart a writer to rely on any resemblance of deus ex machina to resolve the conflicts she’s established.  But this is exactly how the story’s resolution came off to me, and I wonder what I’m missing.

My final dissatisfaction with the novel is how little resolution we get for so many of the secondary characters we grew to care about in previous books.  Did Amzallag find his family?  What purpose or ending came to Rath the Dashnag?  What happened to the deer-girl refugees Sveva and Sarazal?

When you have such a wide cast of secondary characters, many of whom received their very own POV chapters, then I feel as though I’m owed some sort of resolution for those characters.  And there I run into a dilemma.  When does an author owe a reader resolution?  Does the author owe a reader some level of satisfaction?  Or does an author not owe the reader anything?

I think the biggest reason I felt dissatisfaction in this conclusion is that so much of the resolution of the war was told off-screen.  The resolution was recapped.  I had invested in this dream of peace between two groups at war, but I did not get to witness the final battle, the surrender, the two groups working together, or the rebuilding of society.  All of this happened off-screen or was told as if it was a bit of backstory that we missed.

Did I want to see happiness and rainbows?  No.  I realize that war is messy and the rebuilding after war can oftentimes be just as difficult as war itself.  But you can’t spend two books on fighting and violence, and then treat the resolution as a sidenote (a sidenote of deus ex machina no less).

My last issue with the book is the introduction of a larger, more powerful, vague enemy in the final pages of the book.  We get an ominous and overwhelming threat that every single character is going to have to physically battle.  The end?  This is a trilogy.  This is the third book.  Laini Taylor herself writes in the acknowledgements:

“An ending is reached.  It’s deeply satisfying, a little bewildering, and unbelievably sad to be closing this chapter of my life.  A trilogy, completed!”

So you introduce a completely new threat, as they are rebuilding from total devastation, and say case closed?  That’s supposed to be satisfying?  It’s one thing to leave a series open-ended for spin-offs or sequels.  It’s another thing entirely to literally introduce a threat that impacts the lives of the characters in a very real way, and then say “The End” without any resolution.

If the purpose of this new threat was to emphasize metaphorically that even after achieving peace there will always be danger in the world… then that was a very literal and not very subtle metaphor.  I don’t understand if Taylor was trying to buck the trend of neatly tied-up endings?  Was she setting up a spin-off series with her newbie-powerful-characters?

Most reviewers seemed to find this book satisfying because of the romance.  Lots of happy couples.  And most reviewers like Zuzana.  I agree.  I love Zuzana.  She’s loyal and fiesty and hilarious.  And most reviewers praise Taylor’s prose, which I agree is still extraordinary in its lyrical qualities and vivid imagery.

I can’t get past my feelings of dissatisfaction.  I originally gave this 4 stars on Goodreads, but after typing up my review and really mulling things over, I am going to have to say 3 stars.  I do question whether I, as a reader, am owed anything by the author.  Does she owe me a satisfactory resolution (sans deus ex machina)?  Does she owe me information on what became of secondary characters, considering we spent time in their POV?  Or does an author have the freedom and right to bring her vision of the story to light without regards to her audience?

This series was poised to go on my All-Time Favorites list, but now I see it instead as a cautionary tale to myself as a writer.  I never want to leave my readers dissatisfied and disappointed.  The story will be my own, but I will be sure to spend enough time on my resolution and secondary characters to leave my reader satisfied.  If they spent several hundred pages of their time, then I personally feel like I owe them something.  I currently have some plotlines and secondary characters that are unresolved, and I will definitely be working hard to find a resolution for each of them.

Discussion is welcome.  I wanted to like this book, so I’m definitely open to anyone who can share thoughts and ideas that will put this book in a more favorable light for me.

After Note:
I wrote up this review, and then did some internet research.  According to an interview with Laini Taylor on Hypable, it seems that Laini prefers to write without a plan or outline:

“I have fear, as a writer, because of my process, which involves a lot of faith in my future self. (“Future-me will figure this out. Just leave it to Future-me.”) But the alternative—plotting it all out in advance—has just never worked for me, so this is what I do.”

So now I doubt that Taylor had a purpose or end destination in the first place.  I’m fine with writing a first draft without a plan.  Personally, I find outlines helpful, but some of my favorite scenes are the ones that I did not plan out.  The scenes that came out of some subconscious part of my brain.  However, I am now of the belief that Dreams of Gods and Monsters could have benefited greatly in the revision process if beta readers or editors had asked some key questions about the choices Taylor was making as an author, the direction the plot had taken, and how certain subplots were resolved.

Because ultimately, I feel cheated out of a resolution between the angels and chimaera.  That’s what the series led me to be invested in, but the final book did not deliver a satisfactory resolution.  An all-powerful other swept in and solved it all for them and an entirely new conflict was introduced.

Having no plan initially is fine, but that’s what the revision process is for: making sense of the pieces and ensuring you deliver a story that is whole and cohesive.  Without a satisfactory resolution, I don’t feel like this book delivered a whole and cohesive final product.  There is a bond of trust between author and reader.  I feel like Laini Taylor broke my trust as a reader.  Do I still think she’s a beautiful writer?  Yes.  Did she create an engaging world?  Absolutely.  Did she create memorable characters?  Yes, characters I cared immensely about.  But will I trust her again, with hundreds of pages of my time and invest in another series by her?  Right now, my answer would be no.  I don’t want to invest my heart in a world and characters if I can’t trust her to craft a satisfying resolution.  And that makes me really sad to say.

Book Review: Days of Blood and Starlight

ad103-daysofbloodandstarlightDays of Blood and Starlight
by Laini Taylor
Published by: Little, Brown and Company
Form: Purchased Hardback
Big Themes: War, Terrorism, Peace, Death, Reincarnation, Angels, Chimaera, Leadership, Choices, Love, Friendship, Trust

My Review of Book 1: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

*This is a spoiler-free review.

After learning who she is and what has happened to those she loved, Karou must make difficult choices regarding who she can trust and who to ally with.  The world of angels and chimaera is further revealed in this sequel and we see the deep hatred and animosity that have torn their world apart.  Will Karou abandon her dreams of peace or will she live up to her name and bring hope to a ravaged land?

7f5e8-sealofapprovalRecipient of the Hughes Reviews Seal of Approval
This award only goes to those books that I see as perfect works of genius.  The kinds of books that leave me speechless.  Recipients demonstrate exceptional creativity, gripping storytelling, memorable characters, grand world-building, beautiful writing, and make a positive contribution to children’s and young adult literature.

What I Loved:
Consistent Characters– I adore so many of the characters in this series.  Even the villains are masterfully crafted and easily loathable.  But what really makes me satisfied and happy with this second book of the series is that the characters are consistent.  It’s clear that Laini Taylor did enormous behind-the-scenes planning on what each individual character wants as well as what they fear.  These wants and fears dictate their actions as well as allow readers a deep sense of empathy and understanding of that character’s core.  This really stands out to me because I’ve read other 2nd and 3rd books in a series and been confused by characters’ actions.  I’ll feel as if I don’t know that character anymore.  With one particular book that I won’t name here, the author suggested that the reason her protagonist was making bad choices and behaving strangely was because she’d just lost people she loved.  Well, Karou lost everyone she loved as well.  And I understood every choice she made and she still felt like the same Karou from book one.  I attribute that to Taylor’s skill as a writer.  Bravo for consistent characters!

Every Scene is Purposeful– This is a chunky book, which could lead people to assume that the writer doesn’t know how to edit and cut out unnecessary bits.  But Taylor doesn’t have that problem.  When you look back on the novel as a whole, you realize how each scene contributed to the overall whole.  Whether it was a character insight or development of theme or an important plot point.  Such purposeful writing is the kind of thing that leaves me in awe.  It also leaves me with confidence that book three will be a satisfying and beautiful conclusion to the series.

Unexpected Twists– There were so many things that I didn’t see coming.  However, these twists aren’t just the author throwing things out and saying, “Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!”  Instead, Taylor is a master of subtle foreshadowing and building overwhelming obstacles.  Once something happens, you see that it HAD TO HAPPEN that way.  Even if it is horrible, you know that it was unavoidable.  Every twist is foreshadowed or built to in some way.

Big Themes– I love when fantasy tackles big themes that readers can take away and apply to the real world.  One of the big themes of this book is terrorism.  Violence for the sake of revenge and instilling fear.  Another is forgiveness and trust.  Can you forgive someone who has betrayed you?  Can they still be someone you can trust?  So many good discussion topics could come out of this book!

Gorgeous Writing– This is just my expectation for Laini Taylor at this point.  All her writing is stunning.  Her imagery and word choice show that she is a master of the craft.  Below are a few sentences that I hope you will find as stunning as I do:

“Night came and the caravan made camp, posted guards.  The dark was pocked by small sounds: a scurry, a snap.  The guards’ hands were hot on their hilts; their blood jumped, eyes darted.” (Pg 72)
“In the cycle of slaughter, reprisal begat reprisal, forever.” (Pg 76)
“And in the highest reaches, ice formations looked like crystal cities from a distance, but proved desolate wind mazes up close.” (Pg 127)

Overall Rating:
Five big beautiful stars and a spot on my favorite list.  It is rare that I have total confidence in the author to finish a series when I’m only on the second book of a trilogy.  I have total confidence that Laini Taylor will have a perfect third and final book, and I can’t wait to see how she pulls the whole thing together.

Content Warning:
Due to violence and sexual content, I would recommend this series to ages 14 and up.