Laini Taylor makes a living building fictional cities filled with gods and monsters. She is the author of the bestselling Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and her new novel, Strange the Dreamer. Taylor got on the phone with Inverse to discuss the continued allure of mythical cities, her new book, and more.

Fictional cities are a repeated aspect of your work. Why do you think they remain an enduring point of fascination?

I love the idea of exploration and that sort of thing. No one in our lifetime will really get to have that experience of discovering a new place. There are possibly lost cities that will still be discovered, but I think that belongs to a time before everything we’ve known. There’s just something so mystical and appealing about the idea of seeing something that has never been seen by outsiders before. It’s that idea of seeing an island from a ship and having no idea what’s there; or crossing a desert and having no idea what’s on the other side. Something about that is just so exciting to me.

Do you do much research when you’re writing a book?

One thing I did find myself reading about for Strange the Dreamer was alchemy. I went on a tangent in order to create a system that would work for this book, because there are some plot elements that hinge on that. It was really hard to get my mind around, and I came to the conclusion that the reason for that was that it totally didn’t make sense. They were making stuff up, and it was all faulty “science.” It’s just so nuts, sort of a fusion of spirituality and pseudo-science. It felt like the more I could read, the less I’d hold onto. It’s so complex and so senseless. So that was fun.

In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, you add a magical layer to a real city, whereas in Strange the Dreamer, you create a fictional city. Which is more challenging?

They can both be really challenging. I have a certain level of intimidation about doing realism unless it’s realism that happens to be something that I in my ordinary life have come to know about. Even if I were writing about high school now, I would find that a challenging subject because I’d have to research it to make it real. So in a way, creating fantasy from scratch is less intimidating because you’re not going to make a mistake someone can call you on.

But at the same time there’s so much invention, it’s really a lot of work. I had a lot of fun with Daughter, being able to root everything in a real place, and describe it, and add a layer to it. I would say that was a lot easier than creating a world from scratch, which I did in Strange. They’re both really fun in their own way. World building is certainly one of the most fun parts of writing fantasy.

Were there any particular myths and legends you used as a backdrop for Strange the Dreamer?

I don’t think there was any particular human myth traditions that I was looking at with Strange. It’s more like, in this case, the idea of ‘what is a god?’ It’s not traditional — these gods appeared, and we don’t know where they came from, and what is it that gets labeled as a god and a monster? That’s always something that’s interesting to me, and the judgments that we make based on our values that we have. You know, deciding what’s a god and what’s a monster and what that means. But there isn’t any particular mythological or traditional thing that I was looking at in Strange, except that the blue color, I would say, happens to also be the divine color in Hindu mythology, but I wasn’t specifically looking at Hindu gods in any way beyond that the color just happened to work.

There may be things that people point out — ‘oh this reminds me of this.’ I’m always finding that. I’m not very analytical when I’m writing, and sometimes I don’t discover it until way after the fact that ‘oh yeah, this was probably inspired by this thing I wrote twenty years ago.’ So it’s possible that there’s more subconscious inspiration that I’m not really aware of.

Strange the Dreamer is out now.

Photos via Ali Smith