One of our editors' picks for the best young adult books of October is Laini Taylor's Muse of Nightmares, the second half of her amazing duology which began with Strange the Dreamer. As is always the case when I read her books, Taylor kept me on the edge of my seat, heart in my throat, totally invested in her characters and story. In Muse of Nightmares questions are answered, truths revealed, and Taylor even drops a few Easter eggs into the story for fans of her other books. Taylor was was in town this week and we talked for a bit about how this duology came to be, themes she seems to unconsciously return to, and stories for another time...
Seira Wilson: For people who haven't read Muse of Nightmares yet, how would it you describe it?
Laini Taylor: Muse of Nightmares is the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, which is the story of Lazlo Strange, an orphan librarian at the greatest library in the world. He's been obsessed all his life with this mythic lost city called Weep but he knows he will never have the resources to cross the continent in order to find this place, and see what happened there to cut it off from the rest of the world--or indeed, if it was even real at all. But then one day a delegation of warriors arrives at the library from the lost city, and they're looking for people to come back to Weep and try to help them solve this unspecified problem and Lazlo gets to go on the delegation and find out what happened there. So it's about that, and it is about the left behind children of murdered gods. Muse of Nightmares picks up where Strange the Dreamer leaves off, its a duology and the two books are complete together.
You have some important themes in the book--corruption of power, taking your power back--did you have an idea of what you wanted to show readers with this book/the duology?
Usually when I start writing something I'm really thinking about what makes it cool and fun and interesting; coming up with a fictional scenario situation, that's really engaging for me. And sometimes I'll have an idea of one or two themes that might come into play, but it's only while I'm writing that they really surface, along with other things that I didn't realize I was really writing about. Often it's the same themes in all my books that I don't really consciously realize I'm writing about until I'm deeply into it.
In this case there's a character named Minya who's a six-year-old child, and she's been six years old for 15 years. She doesn't age and the other characters don't know why--nobody knows why she doesn't age--and when I first came up with this, I just thought it was weird and cool and I didn't have a conscious understanding of why she was like that. But as I wrote the book it became really clear that she was a symbol for trauma, and how you are frozen by trauma emotionally. Something that started out as just a cool idea took on this huge significance about reclaiming or rebuilding an identity, whether it's possible to save people afflicted by severe childhood trauma, and what it does to a society where people are raised in terrible conditions and have endured terrible crimes. What do you do after that? How long does it take to recover, if it's even possible to recover?
Your characters also confront the choice of whether to follow an existing path of destruction or not...
Minya really becomes the roadblock for everybody else in terms of breaking those cycles of violence and vengeance. It's that terror of being held hostage by one powerful person whose mind cannot be changed by anything, and how we're all beholden to these powerful people who have their own agendas and do not necessarily listen to reason, or compassion, or points of view, or empathy...and yeah, I guess the question for me, in all of my books is, is it possible to break the cycles of violence and what kind of courage and strength does it take to be the one to make the first move towards something different, towards peace, to not return to another volley of violence?
There are also points in the book where the preferred solution is just to kill the offending character because they will always be the enemy--do you think everyone is redeemable?
I don't know that I think everyone is redeemable. I think there are certainly people who perhaps do not deserve that consideration. But the other part of the question is, what does it do to you to be the person that kills them? What does it do to you to become a killer and is there another fate for you? And there are a lot of people that we would consider past hope, that may not be.
So that was one of the things that emerged in this book--I wanted to write a book where the solution literally was not to kill the bad guy, you couldn't do it, it's not going to help. I wanted to set up situations where the only thing that's not going to work is killing your enemy.
It was interesting setting up these situations and trying to fix them because usually, certainly in a fantasy scenario, that is the default and it is the easier path. But in this case, it just wouldn't work.
So you had to resort to something else or really think up other, more compassionate, solutions. There isn't really a bad guy in this book. There were bad guys and they've been dead for 15 years. And so everyone that's left is locked in this conflict, and some of them have committed crimes to save their people and some of them have not yet committed crimes but want to, and it's all very understandable and none of them are villains and how do you come out of that?
It's remarkable how you're able to weave these heavier themes into a story that's still just super fun to read and is so entertaining.
Thank you. That is always my challenge. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which was such a colorful, whimsical book ended on such a dark note. I kept trying to write the next book in the same tone that I had written Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it wasn't working because clearly I had set up a different kind of book, and I was still sort of in denial [laughs].
I'd set myself up to write a war book and it took me months to figure out that everyone is broken now, because I broke them, and so I have to figure out a way to still make it fun for the reader; to honor this terrible thing that I've set up here, and start to be able to come out of it and make it fun in the process.
I had read some books around that time that were sort of cautionary tales for me. They were trilogies that got increasingly darker to the point that, personally I wanted to know what happened, but my hand would sort of hesitate to pick the book back up because I knew it was going to plunge me into such a dark place. So I knew that I didn't want to create that kind of experience at all. No matter how dark it was. I also wanted the reader to be able to have fun and have moments of levity.
There's a line at the end of the book, “that's another story” –do you know where I’m going here?
When I started writing Strange the Dreamer, there wasn't a heart of the citadel yet. I hadn't gotten that far yet, so it wasn't part of the original blueprint, but once these things started to fall into place and I was able to do some connecting, I got really excited.
And I knew that I wanted to be sure that Muse of Nightmares and Strange the Dreamer could be read independently and that you wouldn't be missing anything if you hadn't read Daughter of Smoke and Bone--which is true--but I also wanted to put in Easter eggs for readers of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. So if you've read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, it'll be like you're wearing special glasses that let you see a few things... It was so fun to write it! Especially when I finally got to the end and was able to make some hints. I like to leave some stories out there on the horizon, another one that I would love to write is a novella or short story about a certain couple of characters who have an idea about finding some dragon eggs…