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Book Review: Lair of Dreams

June 30, 2015

Lair of Dreams
Libba Bray
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Advance Copy via NetGalley

I didn’t expect there to be a sequel to the Diviners at all- the story worked as a self-contained, imaginative historical fiction that hit my sweet spots of being set in New York, following threads of an ensemble cast, and having really inventive scares that were just this side of almost too startling for me. But once I discovered that they were giving galleys away at BEA, getting one became a Serious Quest for me. Many thanks to NetGalley for coming through.

My thinking about Lair of Dreams evolved over the course of reading. Getting ready, I prepared myself by rereading The Diviners, which was a reminder of just how much I’d loved the thrills and scares of the plot. Even the bits that were almost too gory for me, or suspense that was nearly jarring. (I am by nature a squeamish soul, easily startled). I started out really liking Lair of Dreams and being pleased with it, but not absolutely blown away with love for it the way I was with The Diviners. Perfectly satisfying, but not off-the-charts. And I was satisfied with liking the book, but not loving it.

And then I kept reading… A few more chapters in, I really started to appreciate the way Lair of Dreams was constructed.

By its very nature, the menace and mystery of the plot is going to be more subtly creepy than its predecessor: there’s a sleeping sickness affecting people in New York, starting in poorer immigrant communities. Nobody knows why, and the entire city is scared. Lair of Dreams picks up the juxtaposed stories of the ensemble cast of characters from its prequel. I enjoyed watching the characters who’d survived the terrors of the first volume, as they each grew into answers to the question of “What now?”

I find storylines that humanize having supernatural powers immensely satisfying: being able to do a supernatural thing might make some talents larger than life, but ultimately, the person with the powers is still the same person, with insecurities, confusions, pettiness maybe, selfishness, a narrow focus on the short term. Establishing the characters in the aftermath of the first story meant seeing them adapt (sometimes badly) to how their lives had changed. Even the romance aspect had excellently messy and ambiguous near-answers that delighted me. (Especially in genre fiction and YA, I think there is far too much certainty about love, and to see this take a different approach was outstanding.) Henry and Ling might have been my favorite plot thread, with Evie and Sam a close second. The shifting allegiances and conflicts felt like natural extensions of the characters rather than being forced.

Another thing that Lair of Dreams did that I especially enjoyed was pulling back to create a larger social context to frame the supernatural events. The story is set in the 1920’s, mostly in New York. But it pulled back at various points to show how America might react as a nation: a few nods to the revival/evangelical religious, as well as to eugenics absolutely made historical sense, as well as adding a good dash of government conspiracy suspense and menace to help build the mood. There were also some riffs on folklore and Americana that were just fun to read for the language. The passages taking the more overarching view reminded me nicely of American Gods.

All of these elements grew on me over the course of the book, building to a plot resolution I genuinely didn’t see coming. While the pacing shifted from the self-contained scare of the first installment, to what is more clearly a long game with plot threads that are clearly going to carry out into a sequel (and possibly more) the events of Lair of Dreams didn’t end on a cliffhanger. I feel, given the trend, especially in genre YA to end on a cliffhanger (I still haven’t entirely forgiven Maureen Johnson for The Madness Underneath, but I digress), it’s important to note that it’s safe to read Lair of Dreams without having to wait til the next book is in hand.

Just make sure to read The Diviners a few weeks prior, and be ready to shift from startling suspense to a subtler creepiness, in Lair of Dreams.

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