Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
I waited almost 2 years for this sequel to the genius The Diviners, but it was so worth it. It follows a group of young people with exceptional abilities as they navigate life in New York City in the 1920s. Each character has a thread in the story, which somewhat crossed in Diviners, but all weave together to form a more complete picture by the end of Lair of Dreams.
Following closely on the end of The Diviners, we see Evie O’Neill living the life of a party girl after her break with her Uncle Will and her self outing as a diviner. She’s living on her own and working as “America’s Sweetheart Seer” at a radio station where she does a show reading objects for audience members. Behind her devil may care facade, Evie is struggling to deal with both the recent trauma of defeating ‘Naughty John’ and the more distant loss of her beloved brother.
Underground work in the city disrupts a spirit who walks through the dreams of the living and steals their life force. To the living, the symptoms appear to be some sort of sleeping sickness, as the victims never awake and a hive-like rash spreads across their bodies. Because it began in the immigrant Chinese community, they are blamed for it and find themselves increasingly isolated, persecuted, and at one point rounded up for who knows what treatment – internment, deportation? Many, if not all, of those rounded up are American citizens.
In the midst of this, Henry, who can walk in dreams, meets another dream walker, Ling Chan. Together they search for Henry’s lost love, Louis, whom he had to leave behind in Louisiana. As they explore the dream world they can access together, they delve deeper into the mystery of the sleeping sickness. In this dream world, Ling Chan meets a young girl who is on her way from China to San Francisco, then New York, to be married. They develop a close friendship and she teaches Ling much about manipulating the dream world.
Meanwhile, Memphis is manipulated into healing someone with the sleeping sickness and exposes his renewed abilities. He is still wooing Theta, who is still hiding her true identity and her diviner ability. Meanwhile Sam, in trying to help Jericho save the museum in Uncle Will’s extended absence, is manipulating Evie through the advantageous misunderstanding of the media that he and Evie are betrothed. To both Evie and Sam’s dismay, they begin to have feelings for each other. As Sam and Jericho delve deeper into Uncle Will’s past to try to save the museum, they begin to uncover some of the mystery behind the diviners and the secret government program set up to use them. Sam and Evie spend some time investigating and learn more of what happened to Sam’s mother. We see glimpses of these government agents and what is going on behind the scenes, including their use of eugenics tents at fairs to identify possible diviners. Sam also inadvertently reveals his own diviner ability in a desperate moment.
There is so much more going on in this 613 page work of art. It is a complex and extremely detailed imagined world with multiple plots, motives, and themes. In some ways it struck me as almost X-Files like in that it has multiple ‘monster of the week’ plots as well as an overarching conspiracy of epic proportions. But this is both a compliment and a simplification. Libba Bray has created a masterpiece in this work.
When a coworker asked what I was reading and I tried to describe it, I was somewhat overwhelmed. It’s easier to explain the surface plot of what is going on than the themes behind it, but this is what I ended up telling her. At it’s heart, Lair of Dreams is an excoriation of the ideology behind ‘American Exceptionalism.’ This ideology that asserts our unique values of democracy and personal liberty has historically only been within the reach of those white, heterosexual, neurotypical males with access to either property or education through family heritage. What Bray has created exposes the many ways in which this ideology either ignores or twists so much of our history as a nation. In Lair of Dreams, she exposes all of the damage and evil we have done to our people over the course of our history as a country. In many ways, despite all of our advances, it is the damage and evil we continue to do.
I cannot sing high enough praises in recommending this book to any collection serving both Young Adult and Adult readership. I wholeheartedly wish I could send multiple copies to every high school in the nation.
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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