Imagine you have a beautiful pearl necklace, long and made up of many beautifully-iridescent and perfectly-shaped orbs. It’s one-of-a-kind, with multiple strands intricately woven around each other. You love everything about it except for the fact that the orbs are threaded on a gossamer-thin string that makes it difficult to wear without breaking. Just taking it off the hook of your necklace holder and shaking it a little to make the strands flow instead of bunch has broken the string in the past. But you love it, and you can’t re-string it on a stronger filament, so you keep it on the hook and just admire it. Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith is like that pearl necklace, I think, amazingly rich and beautifully-written, but with too-thin connections between some plot points. Its premise is at once fascinating and grand, even while based on something so intimate as dreams, but it’s that very premise and grandness that makes it a tiny bit too esoteric for me. All in all, though, Dreamstrider is a very worthwhile, fascinating read.
What Dreamstrider is About
Indeed, I dare say that Dreamstrider’s plot—the intricately-woven strands—is complex enough that I feel like I need to read it again at least one more time to fully understand it and fully appreciate it. It’s about the ability of the main character, Livia, to enter other peoples’ dreams, and through that, to don the bodies. Her ability makes her useful as a spy for the Barstadt Empire, and as such, provides her with the means to get herself out of the Tunnels where she was born–out of a life of abject poverty, servitude, and gang violence. While she’s happy to be of use to her kingdom, even though it’s based on a caste system that deprives her of full citizenship because of where she was born, she’s unsure of her real value to anyone else and thus unsure of what she really wants out of life and whether or not she deserves anything more. When she and her spy partner, Brandt, uncover a plot against the Empire that threatens both the dream and waking worlds, Livia is presented with the opportunity to prove herself and earn a new station in society…if she can figure out who the enemy really is and where her value truly lies.
I bought this book because 1) I’m fascinated by dreams and 2) I wrote two books about a girl whose dreams have a certain power, and I’m trying to read every traditionally-published fiction book about dreams to identify ways in which my books are both similar to and different from what’s already out there.
What Are Dreamstrider’s Strengths?
If you’re looking to be enchanted by a book’s writing, then you will love Dreamstrider. Take this paragraph, for example:
An icy breeze whips around us, raking like nails across my exposed skin. His question steers my gaze toward the mountain peaks in the east; try as I might, I can’t help but look at the ancient bones strung across the high mountain ridge, the massive ribs on the mountainside curled like the rusted bars of a cage. The Nightmare Wastes’ words echo in my mind; soft as silk, they slither around me until they tighten into a knot.
Every page of this book is filled with graceful and evocative descriptions like these, carrying the reader easily into Livia’s world, which is rich and emotionally-charged. But Smith doesn’t caught up in descriptions just for beauty’s sake; each one also carries the weight of progressing character relationships and motives as well.
What Are Dreamstrider’s Not-Strengths?
That being said, though, sometimes those beautiful words are wrapped around fragile inferences made about scattered clues along tangled plot strands. Livia and Brandt, for instance, are tasked with finding the source of the threat against the empire, and assume it’s the Commandant of the Land of the Iron Winds, a land south of the Barstadt Empire with a dictatorial commandant. They go on a spy mission, with Livia donning the body of one of the Commandant’s generals, to find out more about the Commandant’s plans. This leads to them cooperating with some operatives from Farthing, a country to Barstadt’s east, which presents a challenge for Livia, as Farthing is acting as an ally, but not one that is close enough that she can reveal her ability to their operatives. She dips into the dreamworld as herself to investigate some research her mentor left behind that might help her push her ability to the extent that it needs to be pushed to find out who’s colluding with the Commandant because, during the spy mission, he alluded to using a mystic and having a great warbeast. Livia’s dreamworld dip leads her to find that something important is missing from her mentor’s dreamworld (one that he created, like the characters of the movie Inception). From that, Livia infers that Marez, one of the Farthing operatives with whom she’s working, is the Commandant’s mystic, and that Marez promised the Commandant a warbeast, which is the resurrection of the giant monster on the high mountain ridge: Nightmare.
Such an inference is crucial for the plot to unfold correctly, and to reveal that Marez is more of a threat, really, than the Commandant, but it seems much too fragile, based primarily on what Livia guesses is missing from her mentor’s dreamworld. I like that Marez turns out to be the bigger threat because the Commandant is much too flat of a character (i.e., just power hungry, with no back story whatsoever). But the plot would have been stronger if there was something to corroborate Livia’s guess. Maybe there was and I was too dumb to see it. If you read Dreamstrider and see that was something else, please let me know in the comments below!
And, as you can probably tell, Livia’s excursions into the dreamworld, either as herself while she’s sleeping or as other people while she’s using their dreaming bodies, add a plot layer that is neat and not bound by the rules of reality, but also confusing, vague, and difficult to determine meaning in the waking world. This layer blends with reality at the climax of the book in a way that deftly ties together many plot strands but also left me scratching my head in puzzlement a little bit. So, if you also like books that tease your brain, you’ll like Dreamstrider.
To sum up, then, Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith is an enchanting and brain-teasing read, if a little tenuously-constructed and esoteric at times. I’d give it 7 out of my 10 stars. Nutrition facts: no swearing, no sex, some violence, good theme (self-worth).