Jumping into a series at the halfway mark is like jumping into a cold pool – as you break the surface, there’s the shock of the chill before your body acclimatises to the temperature. Lair Of Dreams, from New York Times best-selling American author Libba Bray, reads like that.
Though I’ve not yet read the first book, The Diviners (2012), its sequel Lair Of Dreams (2015) was recently reissued ahead of the series finale, Before The Devil Breaks You – and this novel is an absolute treat.
Bray’s characters are incredibly well-drawn. Within pages of meeting them in their respective chapters, they settle in like old friends you didn’t know you’d lost.
Set in New York in the 1920s, the bustling city is grappling with a mysterious malady that lays inhabitants out for the count, left and right. The press has dubbed it “the sleeping sickness” as infected folks fall unconscious, a state from which they can’t be awakened.
Exhausted bodies exhibit signs of intense dreaming. They break out in rashes, sores and blisters until, finally, all physical energy is spent and the slumbering body expires.
The Department of Health is struggling to contain and stop the spread of the infection. But what they don’t know is that it has otherworldly origins.
Naturally, the public grows concerned, as buildings and neighbourhoods are quarantined. New Yorkers are looking for someone – or something – to blame, and it’s the immigrants and citizens of “poor breeding stock” (if you hold with the American Eugenics Society of that time).
Despite its sprawling cast, Lair Of Dreams does focus mainly on the Diviners, namely the story of Henry DuBois IV, Ling Chan, Theta Knight, Memphis Campbell, Evie O’Neil, and Sam Llyod.
Diviners have been appearing all across America, each one with a different power. Henry and Ling are dreamwalkers, folks who can see and enter people’s dreams. Theta can burn things with a touch. Memphis is a healer. Evie can read the history of objects. Sam can make you not see him for a few seconds.
Flappers, speakeasys, the Prohibition, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the mix and roar of the 1920s all come alive on every page. Dialogue sparkles with the chipper talk of the period. It’s enough to make this dewdropper want to neck some giggle water as I bust out my cheaters and scour the ol’ timey dictionary so I can sound like a 1920s bimbo.
Bray has crafted a Gothic horror tale interspersed with genuine comedy and some achingly bittersweet love stories. Fully-realised characters, huge stakes and a suspenseful adventure with chills make this a standout piece of work.
Film rights have already been sold, with Bray attached to adapt her series. The visual medium seems a great match for this book, but Bray’s prose is no slouch on the page either.
Beneath the surface tension of the city, we have at least two “big bads” gunning for our heroes. I say at least two as Bray weaves many layers into her storytelling. What makes the tale so effective are her hints of unresolved mysteries that allude to greater happenings than what’s covered in Lair Of Dreams.
We know of the sleeping sickness that appears directed by some sort of ghost underneath New York. There are references to the King Of Crows, a shadowy figure who’s focusing his malevolent attention on the City That Never Sleeps.
Beyond this, there are official-looking men observing our characters from behind tinted windows of their automobiles, and secret government experiments that appear to be Diviner related.
Fans of fantasy, horror and a good old-fashioned riveting novel have a treat in store.
Lair Of Dreams
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Little, Brown, young adult fantasy