Content Note: spoiler-heavy review. If you haven’t read it yet and just want to know if you should: if you like the horror genre, particularly Lovecraft or Wildbow, this ought to be great for you. Otherwise, probably not.
Part One: The First Part
There’s a thing about first albums and first seasons and first novels. Ideas are generated gradually, and then they sit in the back of the mind, waiting to be released through creation. So when one looks at a creator’s career, one often sees that their best work was their earliest, containing all the wildest ideas they’d had in the years before they started creating. But when one looks at first works, they’re not dominated by bests. Instead, they seem. Messy, confused. They become victims of their potential: too many ideas vying for limited space and attention.
But what if you wrote a first novel with lots of ideas, where the confusion and disorientation is part of the point?
First, let’s consider what the story is. Very crudely, it could be called “WH40K, but in the actual Roman Empire not the Space Roman Empire, meets that one overrated XKCD, apologies for the boring reference that everyone inevitably has to make when discussing this book: unfortunately it’s the law, you have to mention it.” More specifically, it’s a kind of Lovecraftian horror story, full of twisted monsters that Don’t Belong In Our World, set in Imperial Rome. This is a really good premise, and the way the story hints at the hideous details of the setting through the first few chapters is nicely done.
The narrative conceit is that the perspective switches between three ‘tagonists: a slave animal-keeper, a soldier and a senator. The first has a lot of trouble justifying being in the story, in my opinion, and it doesn’t help that the first chapter opens very weakly, following him. The third, on the other hand, feels like he’s meant to be a villain protagonist, but what I think was supposed to be “evil for The Greater Good, actually caused by madness and grief, to show the flaws of humans trying to be utilitarians” ends up feeling more like an indecisive back-and-forth between the two archetypes. I’m not sure what would improve this. The second person, then, is the most interesting character: tormented by having a conscience, apparently a unique or at least rare thing in this world. Well, alright, I think we’re supposed to agree with him that it’s literally some gods whispering to him. Which is also funny – in other worlds, the outer gods try to corrupt you by telling you to commit evil acts, but since the world we’re exploring is so incredibly dark, the twisted forces of darkness try to corrupt you into “helping people” and “being nice.” I like that.
What makes this different from other split-perspective fiction is that each character also has an associated narrative person. Writing in second-person is notoriously difficult/unwise, but actually works pretty well here. Admittedly I’m biased by years of video games into just liking second-person. The more typical first and third person chapters are usually fairly solid. But for most of the story, the rotation comes across as more of a gimmick than a necessary part of the story. But not all.
Part Two: I Met A Fictional Man
The best chapter in What Lies Dreaming is by far the denouement, where the triple-narrative breaks down and shifts grammatical person seemlessly and constantly, giving the impression of a surreal conversation between the author and reader as partially represented by characters in the story. It seems like the conceit of the narration was always meant to give rise to this, although it also awkwardly comes out of nowhere in a sense. It would have been nice if the shifting of perspective had sped up beforehand rather than accelerating so jerkily into it? That said, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m the kind of snob who poo-poohs ending-oriented narratives. I actually love it when an ending outshines the rest of the work – at least something shone, and if it’s the part that most needs to be important and memorable, that’s good.
No, what’s really interesting here is the metafiction. Throughout the story, it’s built up to that the big horror we’re dealing with might be the biggest of Lovecraft’s big weirds: Azathoth the Dreamer, who answers the titular question with burbles and eldritch piping. Our waking world is its sleeping madness, and indeed I think the story was supposed to mix dream and reality more as it progressed, but it never really reached a point where I wasn’t sure which was which. That or I never noticed the switch, which is a different issue. Anyway, if it wakes, our world vanishes. Lucky our “heroes” are here to stop that!
Except, as the story seems to use its split-person narrative to point out, this is in fact exactly what will happen when the book ends, regardless of anything the characters do. The author and the reader, dual gods of the dream, possessed of all the strange and alien motives of Azathoth itself, go on to do other things, and the fiction evaporates. So it’s a bit disappointing to have the characters apparently succeed a few pages before they inevitably fail. It feels like a double-waste: inside the story, wasted effort to avert the book’s very ending; outside the story, a wasted opportunity to end on the total failure and annihilation of all of it at exactly the same time as that happens anyway.
You could, of course, view it as a gamble. The story asks: am I great enough to live on in the reader’s thoughts even after they put the books down, thereby letting the upbeat ending escape the metafictional trap? And if it were, well that’d be absolutely superb. But I felt it wasn’t quite on that level. Partly as a matter of the confused and messy ideas pulling in too many directions, but mostly because of:
Part Three: Suffering
So let’s talk flavour. What does the story taste like? And the answer is so very bitter. Not bittersweet like dark chocolate or Girls’ Last Tour, nor bitter-smooth like coffee or Robin Hobb’s books. I’d like to be able to use my final justification for suffering-fic:
But while it seemed like it might have been meant to be, the swing towards upbeat at the end was far too little, far too late. If the story was meant to leave you agreeing with the negative-utilitarianism-sounding logic of the revolutionary girl, then I guess it succeeded? Or perhaps it’s just that I’m starting off from a relatively radical position politically, and just couldn’t see the maintenance of a terrible status quo as a positive ending? But most likely of all is that it was meant to be exactly as chokingly bitter as it is.
There’s a thing about suffering in fiction: it’s really strongly encouraged to include as much of it as possible. I found this most notable in The Fifth Season – alright, I should probably note that criticising something for being too like The Fifth Season is not exactly going to win World’s Harshest Critic Award – where the narration suddenly cuts in to tell us outright that only bad things are allowed, time to cut past anything nice and get back to everything being horrible and cruel. At the time I was merely startled by the bold-facedness of it, though.
So in the end, what What Lies Dreaming mostly made me question is my commitment to suffering-fic to begin with. For a long time I’ve stuck by the writing-101 maxim that Characters Should Suffer. But I’ve become corrupted – I blame them japanese cartoons fer girls – and have ended up liking softer stories. Or maybe gone in a circle; Lord of the Rings is in many senses a story about the comfy rural life of hobbits, intermittently interrupted by a quest to save the world. Either way, the requirement that fiction have ‘down-time’ has risen in my priorities in a big way, and the attempted sucker-punch of addressing the reader to point out that they’re the mad god who wants to see the characters suffer merely made me think “no? Not like this? This is just perverse.” Ultimately, then it’s not this book’s fault I didn’t love it – I’m just no longer the person who would have. But at least it made me aware of that.
Overall: A lot of great ideas, but didn’t arrange them in a way that would appeal to me all that much. Nonetheless, Brodski will be an author to follow.
Cross-recs: Twig – Mawaru Penguindrum – Papers, Please
See also: The author’s blog