Work kept me from finishing my TBR Challenge book today (a Sarah Maclean), but like manna from heaven, into my email popped a fabulous review of the first book in Joanna Chambers’ paranormal m/m series written by Janet Webb, aka @JanetNorCal, long time romance reader and Heroes and Heartbreakers contributor. Enjoy!
My TBR book for March is The Dream Alchemist. I struggled with how best to present this unusual and fascinating entry into an absorbing new world, then decided the best fallback is to let the author’s words draw you in.
Book description (from the publisher):
When the sun goes down, their passion awakens…and so do their nightmares.
Centuries ago, a man with Bryn Llewelyn’s dreamwalking ability would have been a shaman or a priest. In this time, he’s merely exhausted, strung out on too much caffeine and too little sleep.
Sleep means descent into Somnus—an alternate reality constructed of the combined dreaming consciousness of ordinary humans. A place he’d rather avoid. Trouble is, his powers don’t include the ability to go without sleep indefinitely. At some point his eyes close…and his nightmare begins.
As a teen, the treatment that cured Laszlo Grimm’s sleep disorder stole his dreams—and his ability to feel emotion. Petrified of needing more “treatment”, he clings to familiar rituals and habits. But lately his nightly terror has returned, and when he meets Bryn in the real world, the man seems hauntingly familiar. Not only that, Bryn awakens feelings in Laszlo for the first time in years…
Slowly Bryn and Laszlo realize they are both unknowing pawns in a plan of unspeakable evil. And that their powerful attraction could release the destinies locked within them—or be the instrument of their doom.
Tom’s Midnight Garden, P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books, the Over Sea, Under Stone series by Susan Cooper—I read all of these books and many more like them growing up. What they have in common is the elasticity of time, space, and history. In its simplest form, for example, Mary Poppins had the power to take the Banks children, albeit briefly, to another world. In more complex worlds, events involving the “same” people happen seemingly concurrently, in different centuries and/or universes. These are time slip books. Which is, says Wikipedia: “… a paranormal phenomenon in which a person, or group of people, seem to either travel through time via unknown means, or appear to briefly enter an alternate version of present reality via unknown means.”
I have no disagreement with this definition. With The Dream Alchemist, however, my genre boundaries and expectations were thoroughly mixed up, since it didn’t fit alongside my previous time slip reads. It fit under the slipstream column: “Slipstream is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream literary fiction.” (Wikipedia). I see the slipstream genre as the perfect landing place for readers who have bedrock interest in the space-time continuum.
In this particular tale, an alternative modern-day London is the setting—a city divided by haves and have-nots, people who control and people who serve them.
Bryn is a bit of an underwhelming fellow in real life while in his alternate universe he’s a shaman who’s just discovering his powers. The other protag, Laszlo, is a gorgeous brutish creature in the alternate world while back in London, he’s a master of the financial universe, living to close the deal by day and to party all night long. The entry portal for both men is sleep (or the lack thereof).
The descriptions of fighting sleep, desperately surrendering to slumber, and then shifting to an alternate universe are so well done. At one point, Bryn thinks,
He always hated this part, his consciousness leaving him on one plane and emerging in the other, a sick feeling, like when a roller coaster plummets down a deep dip and leaves your stomach behind. And, as always, he found himself fighting it, his eyelids fluttering with futile effort to stay open as the dark grey hand of sleep closed over him and dragged him under.
Down to Somnus.
In both worlds, the men see behind the labels, each sensing the importance of the other to their lives, like when Laszlo sees Bryn for the first time, in Somnus.
The drone’s head snapped up. He looked at Bryn, and his eyes widened. They were startlingly blue and sharp. Aware. Entirely undrone-like.
He was seeing Bryn.
The drone was awake, as awake as any dreamwalker.
I grabbed snatches of text that painted the fine strokes in their developing relationship. Although both men have had enjoyable relationships in their pasts, there’s a sense that neither has ever encountered “the one” but now, he’s here, unavoidable and life-changing. Laszlo is transfixed by Bryn (in Somnus),
The man below him was beautiful. There was no other word for someone like him. He wasn’t butch handsome and he wasn’t femme pretty, especially not with that growth of dark hair over his face.
Bryn is similarly taken by Laszlo:
It occurred to him, right then, that he never had done this before. Not that he hadn’t kissed another man, but that he’d never felt this. Not just a physical hardening of his cock, but something much less corporeal, something that twisted him up inside and made his blood sing.
Would now be a good time to celebrate Joanna Chambers’s incomparable command of the language of the interior? You are right there with the men as their lives inexorably change. It’s twisty and topsy-turvy to observe Bryn and Laszlo meet in each world. Their *sparks-flying encounters* in London, where Bryn is working a party as waiter for a caterer-friend as a favor and Laszlo is a guest, versus Bryn as the dream-walking, blossoming shaman and Laszlo as the drone, during their meetings in Somnus. Here’s their first meeting in London:
And then a shiver ran up the back of his neck. In that instant, Bryn knew someone else had entered the room. He felt the newcomer’s presence click into place, a strange, unsettled feeling that has come over him a few other times in his life. A feeling like a mechanism turning, or some great machine turning gears.
As so it begins, in both worlds. Alone in an alcove, Bryn and Laszlo explore the palpable tension that zings around them.
“I asked what you wanted,” Laszlo said. He smiled, a slow, seductive smile that acknowledged the heat between them. “But if you like, you can show me instead.”
The Dream Alchemist is the first of Chambers’s Somnus stories—it’s a fantastical, unusual entry into a mesmerizing world.