The Secret Life of Dreams
By Cheryl Morgan
We don’t often review Young Adult fiction in Emerald City. For us to do so the book has to come highly recommended, and that was the case with Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox. UK readers may already be familiar with it, but the author actually lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Knox, it would appear, has conquered the Australian and UK markets, and now has her sights set on the US. She may well succeed.
The story is set in a country that is not quite New Zealand but is nevertheless geographically remote and obsessed with rugby. In a remote part of the south island there is a region known only as The Place. Not everyone can enter it — the ability to do so is given only to a small number of talented individuals. Everyone else just passes through normal landscape as if The Place was not there.
Inside The Place, however, the world is different. There are no people, apparently even no animals, but there are dreams, and a canny hunter can catch them as he sleeps.
The first person to enter The Place was a young man called Tziga Hame. He had no idea that he caught a dream there, but on going back to the normal world he found that he could recall that dream — could dream it again — and could broadcast that dream to others sleeping near him. What is more the dream seemed to have strong positive effects on the health of the sleepers. Hame teamed up with a local doctor to sell cures. Before long he was rich.
Naturally other fortune seekers attempted to enter The Place, and a small number succeeded. Not all of them brought back the same sorts of dreams. Grace Cooper specialized in somewhat risqué romantic dreams, a talent that made her the toast of society parties for many years. Eventually a special opera house was built where Cooper could broadcast toned down versions of her dreams to a huge audience. Maze Plasir, on the other hand, has very few customers. He has the ability to make people in dreams look like someone the dreamer knows. For a suitable fee he will tailor dreams to clients’ requirements, no matter how unusual. Can’t get that girl? Want to kill that man? Plasir can make it happen in your dreams.
With so much money at stake, and such a high public profile for the business, it was inevitable that the government should get involved. A special office was set up to license dreamhunters, and to make use of their taxes. Several dreamhunters, including Hame and Plasir, signed up to government contracts through which they received an annual salary in return for handing over any dreams they found that were deemed to be of significant public interest. In addition, certain types of dreaming had to be forbidden.
Last, Sandy said, there were Colorists. "Coloring is illegal. I have heard a Colorist can infiltrate dreams and suggest things. They’re secret persuaders.
Laura was staring at him, apparently horrified. "What do they persuade people to do?"
"Alter their opinions, invest their money, sell their houses, vote a certain way, leave town, get married, change their wills, like or dislike someone, form suspicions — all that."
Given the small number of top-flight dreamhunters it was perhaps inevitable that Hame and Cooper would end up related. Cooper married the society beau, Chorley Tiebold, and Hame married Tiebold’s sister, Verity. With both dreamhunters spending long periods away in The Place, it made sense for the two families to pool resources. The two daughters ended up being brought up as sisters with Chorley and Verity as their effective parents. The arrangement became even more important when Verity died young of cancer.
Everyone expects the two girls to follow in the family profession. As the novel begins, they have just turned fifteen and are legally allowed to take their dreamhunter test. Bossy Rose Tiebold is convinced that she will succeed gloriously, but Laura Hame is far less confident. She’s happy to follow Rose’s lead. And besides, she isn’t entirely sure that dreamhunting is a good idea. Her father has been behaving very strangely of late.
I approached Dreamhunter with a certain amount of nervousness. No matter how well recommended it came, it was still a YA book and the central characters were two fifteen-year-old girls. However, I was pleased to find a very serious book that covered important issues about government corruption and the treatment of criminals. Elizabeth Knox is no Philip Pullman, but then few people are that good. She is, however, perfectly capable of telling a serious story that will appeal to adults as well as her intended audience.
I was, for a while, rather confused as to why the story had been set in 1906. I wondered if this was some harking back to the "safer" world of Enid Blyton books. But in fact it was all part of the world building. Knox had realized that for dreamhunting to work as a business it had to do so away from competition from TV and movies. So she set the story at a time when that would be true. She even makes Chorley Tiebold an amateur filmmaker to emphasize the point. Rose, who has an opinion on everything, thinks her father’s hobby is a waste of time.
"So you think films are only a novelty?" Chorley asked his daughter.
"No — but they’re for recording facts. They can’t do fiction, like dreams can."
Unusually for a fantasy series, there are only two books. The second volume, The Rainbow Opera, is already available in the UK, so UK readers should probably go out and buy both [Correction - no it isn't, the UK publishers changed the name of Dreamhunter to The Rainbow Opera - sorry for the confusion - Cheryl]. I have other books I have to read first, but I’m very much looking forward to the US edition of book two when it arrives.