Published by Roaring Brook Press on October 6, 2015
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A high-concept, fantastical espionage novel set in a world where dreams are the ultimate form of political intelligence.
Livia is a dreamstrider. She can inhabit a subject’s body while they are sleeping and, for a short time, move around in their skin. She uses her talent to work as a spy for the Barstadt Empire. But her partner, Brandt, has lately become distant, and when Marez comes to join their team from a neighborhing kingdom, he offers Livia the option of a life she had never dared to imagine. Livia knows of no other dreamstriders who have survived the pull of Nightmare. So only she understands the stakes when a plot against the Empire emerges that threatens to consume both the dreaming world and the waking one with misery and rage.
A richly conceived world full of political intrigue and fantastical dream sequences, at its heart Dreamstrider is about a girl who is struggling to live up to the potential before her.
While I, sadly, didn’t fully connect with this novel as I would have liked to, I do have to admire it for the sheer ambition of its scope. This story set itself after the incredibly complex task of telling a political mystery, set in a fantasy world, where dreams themselves figure so heavily they are practically characters. You know how difficult it is to describe your dream to someone? You can see it so clearly, but when you go to actually tell it it’s impossible? This story features a lot of dreams, and I have to applaud Lindsay Smith for the attempt to capture and convey the weirdness and irreality of them in the context of a story.
Dreamstrider takes place in a fantasy world that is reminiscent of a sort of 17th-18th century Europe. The Barstadt Empire is a nation with a very strict class system. There are the Tunnelers, condemned to live belowground and forever the servants of the upper classes. There is a barely mentioned middle class, presumably of merchants. Then there is the aristocracy, known for the typical aristocratic frivolities: partying, marrying, carrying on the family name, and the like all enjoyed on the backs of the oppressed underclass. Livia was a Tunneler, enduring child labor as a cleaner at a university until an academic brought her into his research. The academic’s experimenting proved successful: Livia became a Dreamstrider, a person who can inhabit another’s body while that person is sleeping. As the only known Dreamstrider, Livia is scooped up by the Barstadt government to work as a spy in exchange for her eventual freedom from the underclass.
A large portion of the beginning of this book is spent trying to relate the concept of Dreamstriding, and I admit I got lost trying to follow along much more than I care to. In Barstadt society, the Dreamer is a deity; long gone, but with record of his word in the form of holy texts. Centuries ago, he slew Nightmare a dragon-like creature that brought actual nightmares into the realm of the waking. Livia can access Oneiros, a sort of holy place in the Dreamer religion; a special realm of the sleeping which only the Dreamer devout can reach. While Dreamstriding, Livia untethers her consciousness in Oneiros to enter the unconscious body of another person. Or, at least, I think this how it works. Again, I was confused.
I really enjoyed the world that these books take place in. Smith provided enough little details that I often felt like I was walking right along with the characters in Barstadt City and I loved being able to disappear into another world. But it was in the sketching of larger details where I felt the story lost its worldbuilding strength. There is a very interesting mythology with the Dreamer and Nightmare that I wish we had spent more time in understanding. One of the central threats of the book is that Nightmare could be coming back. And while I understand that this is obviously a bad thing, if I had more context or understanding for what it had been like before the Dreamer had vanquished Nightmare back in the day I would be able to better feel the palpability of that threat. This book is that rare creature, a standalone YA fantasy. And while that is refreshing, I wonder if there had been more space to tell the story we would have gotten the larger details about the book’s universe that I craved. I’m frustrated because I feel like I’ve had to do so much background set up just to make this review make sense. That should give you a feel for how nebulous and disconnected the book could feel at times.
The book is juggling a variety of complex threats: the threat of Nightmare coming back, the threat of The Land of the Iron Winds invading, and the threat of a traitor in the midst. There was so much promise in the complexity of these worlds. I wish they had been more fleshed out. The Land of the Iron Winds is a sort of North Korea stand-in with a cruel dictator and a totally oppressed/brainwashed citizenry. Farthing is a loosely collected nation of pirate-type people. I wish we had gotten so much more information on those fascinating sounding worlds. I know it’s strange to wish that a book was a trilogy rather than a standalone, but I really feel here that there was so much more room to play around in this universe. We do get a pretty good look at Barstadt society and see how flawed it is. I was frustrated that ultimately not enough time is spent on the corrupt aspects of Barstadt society. Livia and Co. are facing foreign threats, but there is plenty to criticize of the government at home. Barstadt deserves to defend itself, but it deserved a hard honest look at its corruption too.
For me, both the strongest and most frustrating part of the novel was its wonderfully flawed and eminently relatable heroine. Livia was a breath of fresh air as a heroine who had constant doubts and lack of faith in her ability. So often we see main characters with special abilities who are absolutely amazing and perfect with their abilities. Livia really is just a normal girl, albeit one with a talent. Yet she struggles with that talent. It doesn’t come easily to her. She spends so much time in this book beating herself up for not being absolutely perfect at Dreamstriding, though. I understand her lack of confidence; she is a Tunneler and living with the constant prejudice and lowered expectations of her high-class peers. But it’s so clearly not true. Livia is a vital part of her spy team and one who, more often than not, delivers on her missions. When the heroine spends literally 95% of the novel beating up on herself and feeling one step above worthless it’s very frustrating. Especially when she clearly is not. Again, it’s understandable why she feels this way, but I would have liked to have seen a more gradual turnaround in her confidence.
Yes, there is a minor romantic component and I quite liked it actually. It’s not a driving force in the story, but is definitely a considerable presence in Livia’s thoughts and emotions (there is a lot of unrequitedness) that made her even more relatable. There were more than a few times that my heart actually squeezed a little at the sweetness and tenderness of the interactions between Livia and Brandt. They were adorable and I wish there had actually been more emphasis on their story. But that is as I do: always wishing for more romance.
The types of people I think will enjoy this book more than me:
- Those who enjoy, or really don’t mind, intense military talk: tactics and planning and the like
- Those who have much more patience for letting the carefully set details of a spy mystery unfold
- Those who like mystery, in general, actually. The plot of this book functions very much as a sort of political whodunnit. I’m just not really a mystery person
- People who like their romance to play a minor role in the story
- People who have a lot more patience for scenes of vivid dream descriptions than I do
- Those who don’t mind the sort of/maybe/hint of a love triangle-ish thing
- Those who have a soft spot for rogue-ish potential love interests
Dreamstrider had an immensely captivating premise, but ultimately could have benefitted from stronger world building, less confusion around the central Dreamstriding tenet, more engaging spy missions, and a heroine who was a little easier on herself.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.