19th century, 20th century, books, dreams, historical fantasy

Lair of Dreams and the American Dream (Spoilers)

Just as I was starting school at the end of August, Libba Bray’s long-awaited Lair of Dreams hit shelves. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of pretty much anything she writes, and The Diviners, a sprawling historical thriller set in the 1920s, set my expectations high for her new series. Luckily, Lair of Dreams delivers, delving into fascinating side characters and exploring themes of injustice and yes, dreams, with a truly epic sweep.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

I reread The Diviners just before starting Lair of Dreams, and I’m glad I did. The sequel spares little time for a recap, plunging immediately into a new mystery that suggests a wider threat than the serial murders of the first book. Now that Evie O’Neill has revealed her object-reading powers to the press, all of New York City has gone crazy for the Diviners. Everyone’s claiming to have a supernatural power (including a truly awful Tin Pan Alley impresario, who earns his living “sensing” hit songs) except for the other Diviners, who are trying to keep their powers secret. There’s Sam Lloyd, searching for the truth about Project Buffalo as he struggles to keep his Jewish background under wraps; Theta Knight, running from a past that’s quickly catching up with her; Harlem poet Memphis Campbell, trying to deepen his romance with Theta as he grapples with his ability to heal…and then there’s Henry DuBois and Ling Chan, the real stars of Lair of Dreams.

Henry and Ling can both walk in dreams, and when Henry discovers that Ling’s presence intensifies his dreaming, he insists that he help her find his lost love. They stumble upon a beautiful and fascinating world in their dreams, and the more they explore, the harder it is to enjoy life in the real world. Irish-Chinese Ling befriends a girl named Wai-Mae, bound for America to meet her arranged husband, and the two form an attachment deeper than anything Ling’s ever hoped for. But a malevolent sleeping sickness is spreading through New York’s residents, and the more the Diviners try to ignore it, the stronger it becomes.

This is a beautiful book, full of Bray’s signature lush language that makes 1920s New York come alive. She captures the glamor of the jazz clubs and the endless parties, where bright young things tried to forget about the tragedies of World War I, and she delves into darkness, as well, as New Yorkers blame the Chinese for the sleeping sickness and turn against them. And it’s a big book, too, one about dreamers and the American dream and the terrible consequences of dreams deferred and corrupted.

Right from the beginning, the book introduces the danger of dreams. The men who first fall under the spell of the sleeping sickness dream of their futures, those promised successes so many immigrants hoped for when they came to America. Those dreams lure them past the point of no return until there’s no waking up. More succumb to the sickness, and it’s not until the Diviners work together that Ling realizes Wai-Mae traveled to America over fifty years ago. The girl she’s fallen for in dreams was duped by fake matchmakers, who lured immigrant girls to the States and forced them into prostitution. Wai-Mae, dead for years after seeing her dreams destroyed, is the real force behind the sleeping sickness. Her dreams draw in sleepers and kill them, just as her own dream of a better life killed her.

It’s a stunning conclusion, one that uses fantasy to illuminate some real tragedies of American history. Many immigrants to the States in the 19th and early 20th centuries placed their trust in agencies they’d heard about second- or third-hand, leaving them vulnerable to scam artists. Chinese immigration to the United States (before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) mainly consisted of men hoping to earn money to send back to their families, which created a society of bachelors. While some Americans set up lucrative agencies to bring Chinese women over as future wives, others created malicious systems intending to enslave immigrant girls, like the one Wai-Mae is unwittingly drawn into. In Bray’s capable hands, what was a heartbreaking historical tragedy becomes larger than life with the infusion of fantasy, as Wai-Mae’s dreams, fueled by her anger, nearly take down the Diviners.

And yet, the dreamers keep dreaming. In many ways, America is a country built on dreams – of a better future, a better government, a better way of life – and I’m certain Bray will carry this theme through with her next book. She ends the book by drawing back to sweep over the entire country:

In the scab-tough oil fields of Oklahoma, giant iron derricks peck wounds into the ground. Oil gushes from the broken land like a promise, a baptism in crude hope, fuel for the engines of the nation’s desires. The roughnecks bathe in the sudden shower, and though they will never see its riches, never reap the harvest of its black gold, they celebrate as if it could be theirs at any time – a birthright promised to them, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a race run in perpetuity.

Americans will always dream – it’s written into the fabric of the country. But whether they’ll see the fruits of those dreams is another story entirely.


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