Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Review: Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

Cover of Lair of Dreams, featuring three people of various genders milling along a blue-tinted subway platform with an elegantly arched roof. A ghostly green light emanates from the tunnel that curves away behind the figures.
LAIR OF DREAMS [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository] is the sequel to THE DIVINERS, Libba Bray’s novel of hauntings and dark magic in 1920s New York. The previous book came out three years ago, but let me hasten to assure you the long wait was more than worth it. You want to get your hands on this as soon as you possibly can.

The book picks up a couple months after the end of THE DIVINERS. While all the characters from the first volume are still present and accounted for, the current focus rests on the two dream-walkers: Ling, who we barely glimpsed last time, and Henry, teenage songwriter extraordinaire. As a frightening number of New Yorkers succumb to a mysterious sleeping sickness, Ling and Henry spend every night in the ghostly dream of a subway station that transports them to their heart’s desires--and that may prove key in saving sleepers and dreamers alike from a terrible fate.

Meanwhile, Evie fosters a career in radio even as she suffers from PTSD in the wake of everything that happened with Naughty John; Sam searches for leads on Project Buffalo and the truth behind his mother’s disappearance; Jericho and Mabel grow closer as they mount an exhibit they hope will save the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies from foreclosure; Memphis wrestles with his newly-regained healing abilities; and Theta tries to learn more about her own powers without revealing them to her friends. Some of the cast gets significantly less page time, but Bray gives us enough forward momentum with everyone that I don’t doubt they’ll resurface in a big way in future books.

When I first read THE DIVINERS, I felt like Libba Bray had written it just for me. It had heaps of my favourite things: ghosts, magic, dreams, intense friendships, sinister houses (and apartment buildings), a museum, an unlikely romance, and all the best bits of the 1920s without any denial of the decade’s darker aspects. I drank it in.

And y’know, it’s like she’s dialed everything up to eleven with LAIR OF DREAMS. The sequel brims with all the same wondrous stuff as THE DIVINERS, with an added emphasis on dreams, another lovely friendship, more queer folks, more POC, more awesome character interactions, more intrigue, and a legitimately viable love triangle.

Thank you, Libba Bray. Thank you.

The dreams are obviously the most important part of it all. I’m a total sucker for dream magic (for which we can probably blame the Wheel of Time), so I gulped down everything Bray cared to feed me about the dream-construct Ling and Henry visit night after night. It’s elegant and vicious; fleeting, but also predictable once one susses out the rules. I fully believed in the characters’ desire to wallow there, even as I feared for the tole their dreaming takes on their physical bodies.

I love how Ling goes about discovering the dream’s properties, too. She’s not the least bit conflicted about being a scientist who can communicate with the dead via dreams, and she sees no reason why she can’t use scientific methods to gain a better understanding of her magic. Both realms are part of her observable, quantifiable world. It’s simply a matter of identifying magic’s laws, and of discovering the intersections between the results she gets from her dream-experiments and those she gets in the laboratory. I loved every minute of it.

She and Henry quickly discover their magic has consequences, too. Henry can’t move for several minutes after he awakens from a magical dream. Ling wears leg braces and walks with canes, and it seems likely her dreaming contributed to the infantile paralysis that left her with limited mobility, even if it wasn't the sole cause. Both characters experience social fallout from their dreaming, too--Henry, as his increasing addiction to the dream world drives a wedge between him and Theta; Ling, as she finds it easier to interact with dead people in dreams than live people in the waking world.

Not all the consequences are dire. Ling doesn’t much like people, so she’s initially reluctant to engage with Henry on anything other than a business level. (She’s a Diviner-for-hire who charges exorbitant prices to communicate with people’s dead relatives about what she considers trivial matters.) Their friendship slowly blossoms into something lovely, first as they come to know one another’s dreams and later when they spend more time together while they're awake.

Moving away from the magical part of things, Ling and Henry’s side of the story is decidedly queer. Henry is gay, and he requests Ling’s help in locating the dreams of the lover from whom he was forcibly separated. I’m 98% sure Ling is either lesbian or bisexual, too. Or biromantic if she’s also asexual. She has a strong reaction to a girl she and Henry meet in their dreams, but there doesn’t appear to be anything physical about it. Ling just wants to be with her; to stare into her eyes and spend time with her and, um, wallow. It made me come over all warm and fuzzy.

Evie’s storyline also hooked me but good. She’s a fabulous character because she’s far from perfect and she knows it but she doesn’t know to deal with any of (what society perceives as) her faults. Now she’s got a crapload of issues following her battle with John Hobbes at the end of the last book, and she hasn’t the first clue how to cope with those, either. Booze plays a large role in her quest for normalcy, as do the sort of parties that get her kicked out of one hotel after another--though to be fair, I’m sure Evie would be partying even if she’d never faced down a vengeful ghost with sacrifice on his mind. She’s also determined to become a huge radio star, an ambition that flits within her reach when circumstances force her to fake an engagement with Sam.

Yep; if you’re into fake-married storylines, you’re gonna love everything that happens between Evie and Sam. Their phony relationship has the added bonus of turning Evie’s love triangle with Jericho and Sam into a viable operation. I usually turn up my nose at non-bisexual love triangles because 80% of the time it’s beyond obvious who the conflicted party will choose (pro tip: it’s the one they spend the most time with, who’s usually also the Good One). While THE DIVINERS made some small attempt to present Sam as a potential love interest for Evie, I couldn’t buy it on account of him being a massive dickweed she almost never meaningfully interacted with. Here, Bray expands on their relationship, gives Sam a couple more layers and some more obvious compassion, and makes it work for reader and character alike.

Evie does start to like him, even as she continues to like Jericho and asks herself if she even has the emotional energy to fall in love someone right now. She’s been through a lot, she’s young, and she’s ambitious. She worries she won’t be able to bestow the right amount of love on anyone while still pursuing her dreams; a deeply realistic fear that ties in beautifully with everything else Bray does with her character.

Evie’s friendships, alas, don’t get as much page time as what Ling and Henry share. She and Mabel spend most of the book apart because of reasons, and Theta’s reduced role in this particular story means their friendship doesn’t crop up as often as it might. (Theta’s friendship with Henry also gets less attention due to everything he’s doing with Ling.) What we do get is lovely, though. I remain so impressed with how Bray upped her friendship game between the Gemma Doyle Trilogy1 and this offering. I believe in what these people have, and I believe in their desire to nurture it even when things get tough.

On the worldbuilding front, Bray takes full advantage of all the glitz and glam the 1920s have to offer, but she never shies away from the period’s horrible truths. Racism has a huge impact on how Ling and Memphis move through the city. Stifling immigration laws continue to affect Ling’s parents decades after they arrived in the United States. The queer characters must tread with care lest they face painful, even fatal, consequences for being themselves. Eugenicists enjoy great legitimacy in society at large. And every once in a while, Bray reminds us that the stock market’s set to crash before the decade ends. This will all be gone in the blink of an eye, with or without the Diviners’ magic in play.

Oh, friends. You want to read this fabulous book, but please don’t start here. Even though LAIR OF DREAMS introduces a new supernatural threat, it’s very much a sequel in that Bray continues to expand on relationships she established in the first book. She also peppers the text with more clues for the mysteries that look set to run through all four volumes, such as Evie’s brother’s fate, Sam’s mother’s connection to Project Buffalo, Jericho’s reliance on Jake Marlowe’s serums, Theta’s abilities, and the sinister man in the stovepipe hat. This is clearly a puzzle series; one of those cases where each book tells you a little more alongside its otherwise discrete story until everything crashes together in the thrilling conclusion. You want to read it in order for maximum effect.

Please do read it. It’s 1920s fantasy with ghosts, dreams, consequential magic, people of colour, and queer folks, and the villains are all vile eugenicists and racists of other ilks. It’s quality fiction and you want it in your life.

  1. Those of you who enjoyed the Gemma Doyle books more than I did will be thrilled to hear there’s an Easter egg tucked away in LAIR OF DREAMS. It’s tiny, but I think you’ll like it.


  1. I somehow never picked up The Diviners but now I feel I must ... along with this, of course!

  2. Ahahah, wow, that is a bad cover! Did they make the cover bad on purpose? I know that is tangential to your point, but good LORD it looks like it is a DWJ cover from the eighties.

    I trust you Memory and so I am going to get The Diviners on my Saturday library trip, but I just want you to know I regard the whole project with much suspicion.

    1. I've seen another cover floating around out there, so I figure they either changed the cover because this one was so bad or they decided to give the UK edition a nicer cover. The alternate one is still all subway stationy, but it's missing the people.

      I sure hope you don't hate THE DIVINERS and decide to distrust me forever.