The Dreamhunter Duet


by Elizabeth Knox

Dreamhunter – published 2005

Dreamquake – published 2007

And here we have an excellent example of why I try to not read  books until the full series has been published.  I cannot imagine waiting two years to read the concluding book in this pair.  While Knox has billed them as a “duet,” I would argue that they are really just two volumes of the same book.  Dreamhunter really has no conclusions, and Dreamquake picks up the story the same night that Dreamhunter ends.

I added these books to the TBR after reading a review on Tales of the Marvelous, but, per usual, I can’t remember what the review said!!  I’ll read it after I write this, and see if there is anything else to add.  ;-)

I don’t even know where to start with this story (I’ll probably refer to it as one story, because it really was just one story, not two).  It was completely unique, engaging, intense, and intriguing.  But, in the end, the lack of relatability with the characters, and the fact that I felt like a lot of questions were still unanswered in the end, leaves me with a 3/5 for the tale, although one of those almost-4 kind of 3s.

First off, Knox is from New Zealand, and it was so much fun to read a book set in a fantasy New Zealand instead of a fantasy America or England.  It was also completely confusing to me because I didn’t realize this until we got to a point in the story where they were having summer holidays while celebrating Christmas.  Blew my mind, really.

Anyway.  The story takes place in this country set in the early 1900’s.  It’s very similar to any country around that time, except for a crucial difference – this world possesses the Place.  Only some people can enter the Place, and out of those few, even fewer can capture dreams.  But those who can do so are known as Dreamhunters.  The Dreamhunters sleep in the Place and catch a dream.  Then they return to the regular world and are able to share that dream with anyone who sleeps nearby them.  This phenomena has set up an entire industry, with special Dream Palaces (for Dreamhunters who are able to send their dream out a ways) and Dream Parlors (for those who can only send their dream out to a room or two away), an entire governmental body to regulate the Place and the people who work there, and Rangers, who are the people who can enter the Place but can’t catch dreams – the Rangers work to keep the Place safe and to help Dreamhunters carry supplies and things that they need.

This all sounds quite intriguing, right?  Something new and different.  However, where the story starts to get a bit confusing is the next part, where I (try to) tell you who the story is about.  It’s a young adult fantasy, and there are a couple of young adults right off the bat – Rose and Laura, cousins, who are almost old enough, when the story opens, to see if they can enter the Place.  This first attempt is a formality observed and recorded by the government agency in charge of the Place – this group determines who can or cannot be licensed as a Dreamhunter.

So, I start the book thinking that it’s really going to be about Rose and Laura, and it is, kind of…  except it’s not.  Knox spends a lot of time building this world and explaining how the Place impacts the lives and community.  Laura and Rose are part of a very famous Dreamhunting family – Laura’s father is actually the person who discovered the Place, while Rose’s mother is one of the most famous and talented Dreamhunters of all time.  Rose’s father, who is not a Dreamhunter (or able to enter the Place) rounds out the family, as Laura’s mother died several years before the story starts.

And so, the story sort of ends up being about the whole family, because each member of the family is following a different strand of the story – and that was part of what annoyed me – it really felt like things could have moved along much better if they just shared information.  And it actually felt quite unnatural that they weren’t – one gets the impression that they’ve always been a very close family, so why all the secrecy all of the sudden?

None of the characters really felt real to me.  I never felt any huge emotion when one of them did something dramatic, because I was never sure whether or not it was in character – should I be surprised?  Should I think Yeah!  Exactly what I thought she’d do! ?  I just never knew.  Every time someone did anything, I felt the same as if the author had told me that the train departed from the station…  was the train supposed to depart?  Was it supposed to stay there longer?  Did everyone get on board the train first?  No clue.  Despite conversations, the characters still somehow felt like inanimate objects instead of real people.

In the second book, Laura develops a relationship with another young Dreamhunter.  This fellow apparently falls madly in love with Laura, but that whole relationship also feels extremely strange, especially when they quite suddenly decide to have sex without a lot of preamble or anything.  Except I also didn’t have a lot of strong feelings about that, either, because Knox has never really told us how Laura feels about this guy.  Is she fulfilling a deep desire?  Is she just doing this because she thinks he expects her to?  I don’t mean to sound callous, but it honestly reminded  me of a scene in Jim Kjelgaard’s Haunt Fox, where his main character, a wild fox, take his mate.  There was just no emotion.  

Just a couple of days before Laura and Sandy (the fellow) sleep together for the first time, she has this conversation with her uncle:

Then she sighed…  “Sandy suits me.”

It seemed a strange, cold thing for a girl to say, and Chorley shivered to hear it.

“I like to be with him,” she added.  “I’m safe with him.”

Then, just a couple of days later, we’re treated to this scene (they’ve already been kissing, and we’ve already had to interrupt the kissing so Laura can go pee – even though her “bladder was full but shy.  She spent a long time in the box before anything came” – I mean really?) –

Laura thought, “Do people do this?  She’d never seen anyone kissing like this.  Books said things like, “He rained kisses on her face.”  But suddenly they seemed tied together, mouth to mouth.

…[unnecessarily and weirdly detailed undressing scene]

Inside Laura’s great excitement, there was a kind of peaceful expectation.  She had felt big and powerful before, and she had felt small and lost.  Being like this with Sandy seemed the best way to discover what size she really was, and where she belonged, both in her body and in time and space.

And that, my friends, is what really bothered me about this whole situation.  Not that Laura and Sandy were having extra-marital sex, but that the author presents this scene with Laura, who is not passionately in love with Sandy, not sure that he is the person with whom she’d like to seek a deeper, more serious relationship with, and not even sure what all lovemaking really means, as a “solution” for her adolescent feelings of confusion and uncertainty about who she really is.  Because yes, if you’re sixteen and not confident in yourself, you should just go sleep with your boyfriend.  That will help you discover your true self.  Say what?!

Throughout the story, Laura is either dependent on Sandy, or on a magical servant she and her father have created.  Laura herself, who should be (and, I think, technically is) the protagonist, feels oddly thin and surreal.  While not necessarily a passive heroine – because she definitely makes decisions and makes things happen for herself – she never feels real.  I never connected with her, and never felt like Laura really discovered who she was, making her completely unrelatable for me.

Another thing that bothered me was the gruesomeness of the story at times.  One of the major dreams that is caught is Buried Alive, in which a man wakes up and finds himself in his own coffin, already buried.  When people experience the dream, they desperately try to escape the coffin, and end up self-mutilating their faces and hands in this attempt.  I felt that Knox put way, way too much detail her descriptions of people’s battered fingers and faces.  It was quite disturbing.

On top of all of this, there are just way too many subplots.  I thought maybe they would all come together in the end, but they don’t, not really.  The one that most annoyed me I’ll put under the break, because it contains a major spoiler.

Overall, I really, really wanted to like these books.  They had a unique and intriguing premise, and the world-building was excellent.  But the characters came across as surreal, and there were way too many open questions in the end for  me to really like these books, or strongly recommend them.

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The Crystal Cave


by Mary Stewart

published 1970

So this is book one of four in the “Arthurian Saga.”  However, The Crystal Cave isn’t really about Arthur at all – it’s entirely about Merlin.  We start with Merlin as a young boy, and watch him grow to adulthood throughout this engaging story.

First off, this book is set in Wales.  I’ve always been intrigued by/wanted to visit Wales, mostly because of the names.  Who can’t be drawn to a place where people are named things like Myriddn Emrys?  I love the way that anything in Welsh immediately sounds magical.

The story itself was quite good.  I’m no expert on Arthur, and haven’t read very many different versions of the legends surrounding him.  The exception is Gerald Morris’s series (beginning with A Squire’s Tale), which are some of my very favorite books (even though I haven’t read/reviewed them since I started blogging).  The point is, I really had no idea how Merlin’s story was going to unfold, and still have no real idea how things are going to continue on in the next three books.  I am coming to the series without a lot of preconceived ideas as to how a Arthurian legend should read, so I’m not going to be able to tell you how “accurate” (is that a word for how well a fictional book follows a legendary account?) the story is.

This was a pretty serious book.  Part of the reason I read more YA fantasy than adult is that frequently adult fantasy seems to have completely lost its sense of humor and is instead very grim and intense.  This book is alright in that area…  while definitely not funny, it doesn’t unnecessarily dwell at length on depressing themes.

The story is told in first person by Merlin himself, and he is telling this story as a very old man looking back on his life.  This adds a personable touch to the story, but because Merlin is also a magician who is gifted with the Sight, he is able to tell us about other parts of the story, even if he wasn’t there in person to see it happen.  This keeps the story well-paced and engaging, as Merlin tells what is happening even when he’s doing relatively boring or mundane things at the time himself.

There’s a lot going on, and there are a lot of characters to track, but Stewart, overall, does a good job of keeping people straight and finding natural ways to remind her readers of who somebody is if we haven’t heard from him in a while.

I definitely enjoyed this story and found it engaging, and am planning to finish the series.  However, I will say that at times the story can be a bit dark.  These are definitely adult books, with topics like adultery, whether a demon can father a child, war, betrayal, murder, magic, dark arts, and more.

My problem with these stories is the problem I have with really the Arthurian legend as a whole – Merlin is a bit too much like a god for my comfort.  In these stories, particularly, Merlin believes himself to be called by God, but decides throughout the course of this book that all the gods are actually one god, and any good or worship wrought in a “good” way is service to God, while any evil or worship in a “bad” way (e.g., human sacrifice as one religion practices in the book), is service to the devil.  This is not necessarily bothersome to me as a reader, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable recommending the books, as my personal religious views are obviously quite a bit different than Merlin’s!  :-D

Overall, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.  While this book was a bit heavy at times, the story still moved well, and I am interested to read about the arrival of Arthur at the beginning of book two.

PS I’m not sure if Arthurian legend books should be categorized as historical fiction??  Any thoughts??