Part of what I admire about Bray's historical fiction is how she takes what is occasionally a cumbersome, dry genre and uses the right details to evoke the setting without the reader getting lost. In her capable hands, early 20th century New York glitters with rhinestones, reeks of speakeasy gin, and crawls with hungry ghosts. Like all great fantasy, these books are more than just vacations to the past. Lair of Dreams may be set in the roaring twenties, but it's very much about the America of now.
Keeping the story relatable and relevant to today's readers, NYC is revisited—and a little creepy crawly reinvented—to discuss issues of race and class disparity that still exist within the country today. It's disheartening to read about the popular eugenics movement and the growth of the KKK months after Bree Nelson climbed a flag pole, but this is why we need the reminders. To remember this isn't ancient history; it all happened in the past 100 years. And it's not over.
The core story of Lair of Dreams focuses on Ling Chan, Henry DuBois, and Sam Lloyd with frequent check-ins by the rest of the ensemble cast. Ling and Henry are both dreamwalkers—Diviners with the power of lucid dreaming and limited abilities to affect dreams. Handy that, given how a sleeping sickness is plaguing the city. The Diviners had a genuinely disturbing antagonist; Lair of Dreams has its share of horror scenes, but the book is far more psychological.
While we follow Evie through her radio razzle-dazzle and all night parties, the dark creeps up from subway tunnels. Amid the fear and uncertainty of the sleeping sickness, evangelicals gain strength. Shadowy government oversight lurks the streets. Project Buffalo grows ever closer to Team Diviners, while Sam tries to uncover the connection between this wartime secret and our protagonists. Weaving through it all: The dead, and the dangerous King of Crows.
Lair of Dreams, much like The Diviners, is ambitious and epic. For the majority of it, Bray's deft hand keeps a tight rein on all of the plot threads. While it does take about half the book before the concurrent subplots pull together and run in the same direction, I believe it only felt like it was a lot of pages because I've become more accustomed to shorter novels. If you also sometimes feel daunted by higher page counts, don't let that discourage you. Lair of Dreams is worth it.
Within it there is a serious, true discussion about the notion of the American Dream living alongside the disillusionment of the Lost Generation. In Lair of Dreams, you can see our well-known boom of internet stardom recast as the rise of radio stars. And fame costs something. All of the artists in this book are struggling: Memphis runs numbers for Uncle Charlie while composing poems; Theta reinvents herself to gather attention for a Folles show; Evie clings to radio success despite the physical pain it causes her to read objects.
Henry DuBois is the main throughline of this theme. His struggle to get his songs published, including his constant comparison to more popular artists who he perceives to be less talented, is recognizable to many of us. Lair of Dreams asks how does he continue his songcraft amid pressures to commericalize? Should he compromise his artistic integrity to fit the popular trends? What kind of life can he have with the art he wants to make?
While Lair of Dreams doesn't tidily answer those questions, it reminds us that we aren't the only ones asking them. This is a book about doing the hard work and seeing reality for what it is when it's much easier to get lost in dreams. Is there a reading here of this being about depression? Abso-lute-ly. But let's dig a little deeper.
One of the first sleeping sickness victims known-to-the-protagonists is courted into a vision of wealth and acceptance, lured by the promise of the American Dream. We can extrapolate how the plague is the danger of a nation dreaming away about being rich and famous rather than facing the reality of racial inequality and class disparity. Some of the smoothest, most resonate writing in the ARC is when the omnipotent viewpoint discusses America as a whole. Is America itself a hungry ghost or just a nation built on them? The American Dream has been a key underlying theme to The Diviners series.
Lair of Dreams is an emotional gutpunch. It's a book about dreams, and what they cost, and the harm that's done when the Shadow-side of things is ignored for too long. It is not by accident that Bray features a sit down with Jung himself. Everything about this book is crafted. The key to unlocking the mystery of the paranormal plaguing the city is also the key to unlocking what the characters are plagued by: An inability to feel they can be fully themselves.
Everyone in this book is repressing/hiding something or depending on something to cope with the reality of their lives. But the characters with solid arcs—Ling, Henry, and Sam—each reveal themselves and confront their shadows. The other characters? Well, we have a sense that reckoning is on its way. (THE KING OF CROWS IS COMING, Y'ALL.)
I also adored Ling and her viewpoint into the aggressions against the Chinese community. How she struggles to make her Diviner power live in the same space as her love of science and rational thought. The way she so perfectly compliments Henry, and the growth of their friendship.
There are romances between Sam and Evie, Theta and Memphis, Jericho and Mabel. Jokes. Spooky monsters. Optimism versus nihilism as an approach to dealing with life. The more I think about Lair of Dreams, the more I find that's brilliant.
Go shine a light on those dark corners. Take a vacation to the roaring twenties with Lair of Dreams. Diviners assemble!
Thank you to HBG Canada for providing the eARC. Libba Bray's Lair of Dreams should be available August 25 at your local indie bookstore, Indigo.ca, Amazon.ca, and Kobo. (Get a preview of the first fourteen chapters from Kobo here.)