Monday, December 06, 2010

What We're Reading: Dreamhunter

As I have mentioned before on this blog, it used to be that reviewers in magazines such as School Library Journal or VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) spent a lot of time looking at adult books that would be good adult-teen “crossover” titles for teens to read. There is even an award, the Alex, given to the 10 books written for adults each year that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18. It’s sponsored by the Margaret A. Edwards Trust, and has been an official American Library Association award since 2002. But a few years further into publishing specifically for teens, it seems to me that there should also be an award for the 10 books written for teens that have crossover appeal to adults! Teen books are increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging in their subject matter, and I believe there is no genre that has expanded as rapidly or as interestingly as teen fantasy.

I recently read a “duet” of books by Elizabeth Knox that I believe should also be in adult collections for their quality of writing, ideas and images. The books are Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, and several reviewers have distinguished them as “companion” books rather than first book and sequel, because they are really one complete story divided into two parts.

The books are set in a fictional country called Southland (possibly drawn from Knox’s New Zealand origins) at the turn of the century (the last century—the early 1900s). The mores, dress and conduct are typical of that era, but what is atypical is the focus of the book, which is “the Place,” a land that lies outside of geographical boundaries. The main characters of the book, cousins Laura Hame and Rose Tiebold, are 15 when the first book opens, and they are shortly to have their “Try” at getting into the Place. Laura’s father, Tziga Hame, was the one who discovered it some 20 years previous, and it is a strange land to which only one in 500 people is able to gain access. Nothing changes in the Place—it is dry and silent, with trees, grass and vegetation that are neither living nor dead. No water flows, and no fire burns. The pivotal characteristic of the Place that makes entry desirable is that a certain percentage of the people who can go there can lie down to sleep and “catch” dreams, which they then bring back with them to the regular world and share with whoever goes to sleep within the range of their “penumbra.”

Twenty years after its discovery, dreams from the Place are much in demand, both for entertainment and for therapeutic purposes, and Laura’s father and Rose’s mother are two of the premier dreamcatchers who share dreams and make their living from it. But the government is also making use of some of the dreams (or call them nightmares) in much less appetizing ways, and the plots of both books hinge on Tziga's and Laura’s attempts to reveal this to the public in the face of the government’s desire to keep its socially manipulative plans a secret.

I found the premise of being able to transmit dreams to others a riveting one, and the mystery behind the Place—what it is, where it came from and why it exists—equally fascinating. The writing and characterizations are fluid, vivid and specific, and the juxtaposition of a typical early 20th-century society with the otherworldly land of dreams retained my interest throughout.

Elizabeth Knox was born in Wellington, New Zealand, the middle one of three sisters. She and her sisters were close, and together invented a game set in another world, which they shared with several friends, and about which they had many lively discussions. When Elizabeth was 16, her father interrupted one of these sessions to suggest that the girls write down the details of their game. Subsequently, Elizabeth and the others began writing letters between their characters and stories about them, and this propelled Elizabeth (and one sister) into the writing life. She has been a full-time writer since 1997, and is best known for her adult book, The Vintner’s Luck, about a peasant winemaker’s relationship with a fallen angel.

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