Author: Ryan La Sala
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Genre: young adult, fantasy, LGBTQ+
My rating: 2.5/5
“Kane shoved down his curiosity, knowing it was useless to expect a drag queen to do anything other than exactly what she wanted.”
When I heard that a book existed where the “evil queen” trope has been transfigured into “drag queen sorceress,” I just knew I had to read it. And it’s a YA fantasy being compared to Inception and full of fabulously queer characters? It sounded like such an exciting idea. But you know those books that you have so hyped up in your mind because they sound so fresh and original, but then you find out that “fresh” is just a euphemism for “unpolished and awkward”? Yeah, that’s how this one ended up.
“That’s the thing about a big imagination. It’s hard to belong anywhere when you can always imagine something better.”
I’m not even entirely sure I can properly summarize this book, because on the one hand, I don’t want to give too much away…but on the other hand, it’s really dang confusing for quite a while when it totally doesn’t need to be, so I don’t feel too bad. Kane Montgomery is your typical super gay, out-and-mostly-proud loner. Well, maybe not so normal. Recently, he crashed his car into the old mill near his town, causing a huge explosion. He was found in a river shortly thereafter, suddenly missing several months’ worth of memories, and sporting some nasty burns on the back of his head. He can’t help the nagging feeling that he’s missing something important. Enter the Others, a group of students with (relatively new) superpowers, who enter Reveries (daydreams-made-real) and safely unravel them so that those who are dreaming and partaking in them can return safely to their lives without any memory of the Reverie itself. Kane thinks he used to be one of the Others as well. If only he could remember what happened that summer…
What ensues is a whirlwind plot of magic, evil schemes, illusions, fights, lots of wiped memories, family, friendship, and a dash of love. It’s pretty wild. Unfortunately, “wild” doesn’t always equate to “good.”
But, as always, I’ll start with the positive. This book’s largest and most obvious strength is its unabashed queerness. By the end of the book, nearly every character, primary or secondary, is confirmed not-straight–seriously, there are like two straight people total. Though they do face some external homophobia, they are generally respected, which is nice to see. As mentioned before, the villain is a literal drag queen sorceress, who is fabulous and evil and a total manipulative bitch who also happens to have perfect nails and hair at all times. And, just in case the story wasn’t gay enough, the main character is a gay teen whose power involves shooting literal rainbows out of his hands. I am not making this up, I swear.
I also do have to give La Sala props for coming up with such a creative and ambitious premise. The idea of people needing daydreams to sustain themselves but having to contend with those dreams sometimes getting out of control–and/or fighting back–is interesting, to say the least. There’s the omnipresent dread of knowing that, like in a regular dream, most people aren’t aware that they’re actually in a Reverie, and that if too much deviates from expectation, the Reverie will warp and twist itself into something more akin to a nightmare. The contents of the Reveries themselves were sometimes astonishingly original, particularly one involving a romance novel and some bejeweled eggs that hatch horrifying-yet-beautiful creatures. Finally, with magic manifesting itself in dream journals and dogs, charm bracelets and teacups, La Sala infused the world with all sorts of delightful quirks, most of which tied up nicely by the book’s conclusion. And he manages to anchor this weirdness as well, with a very normal, down-to-earth sibling relationship between Kane and his sister Sophia, with all the usual sibling bickering and freeze-outs juxtaposed with fierce loyalty, especially when it comes to keeping secrets from their parents.
The thing is, when you have such a large concept to work with, you have to execute it flawlessly. If you’re using a familiar magic system, like wizards with wands, your audience can infer pretty easily how they work. But when you’re coming up with a whole new way of experiencing a daydream, there are questions you need to answer–about how and why they start, about what their limits are, about what people on the outside will see, and so on–and while we got a great idea of what it is like to be inside the Reverie or to unravel it, many of the foundational details were either ignored altogether or given a cursory-at-best explanation somewhere in the storyline. Furthermore, even when they were explained, it was almost always in the form of an info-dump from one of the secondary characters, either a monologue or what feels like a very poorly scripted conversation, rather than organically explored.
This leads me to my second major issue with the book, which was the weak writing overall, starting with incredibly stilted dialogue. The characters’ jokes weren’t very funny, their speech patterns didn’t seem natural, and their expressions of emotion didn’t feel particularly heartfelt. Despite the fact that there were technically four major couples (either established or clearly beginning) by the end of the book, I only really felt a legitimate connection in one of them–and this was just a side couple, not even one of the Others!–and maybe some hints of it in a second. In particular, Sophia’s romantic feelings for someone come seemingly out of nowhere, and they were just sort of dropped in there, mentioned a few times, and then promptly ignored again by the end of the book.
But the weak writing wasn’t just in the characters; it was also in the language overall. So many cringe-worthy phrases were used–in particular, an excess of similes (which so frequently read as juvenile; if you’re going to make creative comparisons, try to mix in some more metaphors…or, better yet, just show what’s happening, don’t tell us what it is and then follow with a further comparison!). Here are a couple examples of lines I found particularly egregious:
“Those emotions were flat now, like old soda.”
“Hmm. I don’t know, honey. I think you kind of look rock-and-roll, you know? Like, a tough guy. A tough, guy poodle.” She grinned. “Or should I say… a ruff guy.”
“That’s not funny, Mom.”
“Well, it certainly seemed to give you… paws.”
Kane tried not to laugh and failed.
“It cracked against the sorcerer, cutting into him like a wire through soft cheese.”
Finally, there was the issue of tone and pacing in this book. It tried to do a lot, and in doing so, it spread itself too thin and didn’t fully take advantage of any of its components. The start of the book was incredibly slow and meandering as Kane didn’t know what was going on. I have to confess, with the weak writing and the lack of plot development, I almost decided to DNF about 35% of the way through. Then, all of a sudden, Kane has powers–which he masters the use of way too quickly, and frankly are just way too strong to be fair–and there’s magic everywhere and all sorts of things are happening rapid-fire, one after the other, in a rush until the end of the book. It goes from a recovery of memory, with a dash of mystery, into something that feels closer to a child’s superhero TV show, complete with the super-strong-force-field person, the invisibility person, the shape-shifting person, and the person who messes with your mind. Some parts of the book felt like they were trying to be deep, to make statements about being yourself and the importance of dreaming, and to show the power of family and friendship–and, seriously, Kane cries a lot. That’s fine; he’s been through a lot, and it’s nice when characters get realistically emotional. But then you back up and look at how ridiculous the premise’s execution is, and how impossibly easily and cheesily the plot wraps itself up in the end, and you can’t take any of it seriously anymore. Things are just too simple, and too many coincidences work out too improbably well, and it feels like we’ve lurched back from serious-book to Saturday-morning-cartoon-world again. Instead of picking a direction, and maybe seasoning it with bits of the other–either a serious book with a couple funny bits, or a lighter book with a handful of emotions–it went about 50/50 and ended up discordant and less enjoyable.
One thing that might have resolved both the iffy-writing issue and the tonal-inconsistency issue would be a switch in narration style. Now, I can’t say this for sure, because obviously, it’s not like I can mentally rewrite the whole book, but this story is written in third-person, which feels weird. I think a lot of the aforementioned tonal inconsistencies are because we have an impartial third party trying to navigate a story that is split between two feelings. And a lot of the narration is just explaining what Kane is thinking anyway. A first-person narration by Kane himself could have gone a long way in terms of a) solidifying the tone, b) playing up the gaps in his memory and their emotional impact on him, and c) making his feelings more convincing. Again, though, this is just speculation; I’m not an expert, but the question of why this book wasn’t in first-person hit me within the first chapter or two, and it never left, so I thought I should mention it here as well.
Basically, this is a super-gay book that could have been super-fun or super-heartwarming but instead is mostly super-weird due to its super-strange execution. If you’re interested in the premise, by all means, go ahead and read it–the concept truly is original and captivating, if you can get past the gaps in the worldbuilding overall. But if you are hoping the characters will steal your heart, or if you’re imagining a world of lovely prose, you should probably seek it elsewhere.
Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!