If Wonderland and Nightvale had a baby and it grew up to be a power hungry, onion-like, exploitative, regressive bastard of a city, it would be Dream London (not a comment on the actual London). Randomly, I’ll browse the science fiction of Barnes and Noble, shamelessly judging books by their cover until something calls my attention. This book just about slapped me in the face and I’m not mad at it.
Written in first person narrative, it feels like you’re experiencing the adventure with Captain Jim Wedderburn, as opposed to being simply told a story. You’re spoken to and invited in, instead of feeling talked at. This was one of my favorite parts. With so much detail in the main character’s observations, you are free to linger in scenes and embrace how much there is to see. This world is very unforgiving in how much it shows you, like the brutal regression of London to older “simpler” times and the endless details this new version holds. Ballantyne doesn’t hold back and quite possibly doesn’t know the meaning of the word “apologize”. The first 30 pages were a little hard to get into, like the clicking on the first hill of a roller coaster. Once you drop, however, it is a perfectly paced ride that doesn’t do a damn thing you expect it to.
In a lot of recent science fiction, women are still background love interests. I’ve had to hunt for one decent book every few months or so that steps away from the red-headed, witty, gun toting, educated, sexy and/or wealthy, busty badass. (Not that there’s very much wrong with that. It’s just…goddamnit could there please be something else?) Even then it still reads as subtly furthering a male protagonist’s success as the hero while serving as an informative guide into the world, until that protagonist no longer needs them and they quietly fade into the background. Dream London has several major female characters, each with their own COMPLETE backstory. Two of about six or seven were outright love interests; an ex that is the first introduction to the shifting mentality of Dream London’s citizens and a new love interest that shows appearances can be very deceiving and reinforces the story’s theme of fate. Another character, closer to my age, is focused on the interactions with the world and occasionally shows the flaws of the main character. The concept of gender is a big part of all this, as that is one of the first signs of the regression. You’ll see this in a once wealthy family, where the wife was just as powerful as the husband. She becomes a housewife, slowly becoming more concerned with being proper than aware of the situation. “‘It was easier with two salaries,’ she said, reflectively ‘Of course, when the changes began, I saw the way things were going. I took voluntary redundancy before I was pushed out.'” (50) The city itself becomes a character, creating new buildings and widen gaps between people based upon race and status overnight. It develops a whole new culture that feeds off of baser human instincts and exploits them constantly at every single turn. (No I really couldn’t use any other phrase.) Background characters transcend their usual filler space. They aren’t there to serve, they are there to exist and function as if they were real people. It’s clear they could easily have their own stories to further, just not in view of the main character.
The story of Dream London contains many levels, carefully woven together with excellent timed delivery. There’s always something more to the story, and there’s no point into trying to guess (except for one obvious thing, but you know it’s going to happen, just not how. It was soooo good!) At first glance, I could see people taking the overall theme to be an exploration in the liberties we take for granted and political commentary. (I really don’t think that’s the case.) There is a good deal of focus on the balance between assimilation to expectations (both societal and personal) and desire for a true sense of individuality. There’s a mirror effect between the opening and ending scene that shows this nicely, which is coupled with the other major themes. There’s being forced to join a side, but both are evil and vying for the same goal which is some concrete control over Dream London. Throughout the story, I found an echoing “black and white” separation between ideas. For example, the higher up manipulators use the superficial idea of business, status and pleasure against the power of outright fear and brute force to manipulate the citizens. Everyone is ants to someone else’s agenda in this new London. This is just a very small part of how much the story offers, but its complexity was the part I found most worth noting.
I was only 88% in love with very end of the book (last 15 pages), but I still enjoyed it a lot. This was one of my favorite books I’ve read recently and I am so happy it was written. I look forward to more work by Tony Ballantyne. Even if it requires me to spend a good hour just trying to get a grip on all the emotions I felt through reading it.
Dream London is available on Ebay, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other places not yet affected by other worldly takeover (wait, what? ;]). For more delightful reads and the other side of goth, follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube and please take a moment to Join the Exploration Party.
Until next time,