In Dreams Begin: A seductive dream indeed

fantasy book reviews Skyler White In Dreams Beginfantasy novel review Skyler White In Dreams BeginIn Dreams Begin by Skyler White

For better or for worse, I have a habit of comparing books to other books. It helps me sort out my own thoughts, and it makes recommendations easier, of the “If you liked X, you’ll like Y” variety. A complex book like Skyler White’s In Dreams Begin is hard to pin down. When a comparison finally did come to me, it was this: Reading In Dreams Begin felt like finishing Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss and A.S. Byatt’s Possession on the same day, then going to bed and having a strange, sensual dream.

Like White’s previous novel, and Falling, Fly, In Dreams Begin features two point-of-view characters. One is Laura Armstrong, a graphic artist in modern-day Portland. The other is Ida Jameson, a Victorian woman with an interest in the occult. On Laura’s wedding night, she’s spirited back to the past by one of Ida’s experiments in spiritualism, and into the body of Ida’s friend Maud Gonne. When Maud has her fateful first meeting with William Butler Yeats, it’s really Laura behind Maud’s eyes, and a passionate attraction sparks between the two. Laura is torn between her waking life with her new husband and the romantic dreams (or are they dreams?) that take her back every night to Maud’s body and Will’s love. The timelines don’t run at the same speed, though, and Laura returns each night to find months or years have passed in Will’s time.

Ida has a fascinating character arc of her own. Manipulating people and events toward her own ends, Ida could be seen as the villain of the piece. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for her, though; she sees herself as unloved, ugly, clumsy, and always second fiddle to Maud. Her role in the novel’s events turns out to be far more complicated than it appears at first glance.

Skyler White introduces each chapter with a quotation that fits the events about to transpire; some of the quotes come from Gonne’s autobiography, some from Yeats’s poetry and letters, some from other writers such as James Joyce and Dion Fortune. These quotes could, if looked at just the right way, suggest the uncanny goings-on featured in the novel. She ties her own prose in with Yeats’s poetry, too, both by using a lyrical style and by invoking images from the poems in her scenes (for example, one memorable scene echoes the “And bending down beside the glowing bars” stanza in “When You Are Old”). Skyler White’s style was already beautiful and distinctive in and Falling, Fly, but in this sophomore effort she has improved. Here is an example of In Dreams Begin’s prose:

Through the provincial streets to its tiny cemetery, Maud had walked, a priestess or a secret witch cloaked and hooded with Ida, her familiar bird, wing-in-elbow beside her. But inside Georges’ little burial chapel, Maud shrunk to an Irish crone, her ritual robes a weathered shawl wrapped over curling shoulders and the hollowed-out hole where her heart had been, and Ida, her carrion bird behind her.

In Dreams Begin explores topics such as art, beauty, fidelity, and the nature of love. It’s an intensely sensual story; readers who hate sex in their fantasy novels had best stay away, but readers willing to surrender to In Dreams Begin’s spell will be rewarded with a thought-provoking read. As in and Falling, Fly, White finishes the novel with a conclusion that will have you scratching your head, saying “Oh!” as pieces fall into place, and maybe thumbing back to earlier scenes to reread them with new knowledge in mind.

In Dreams Begin can be read as a standalone; you don’t have to have read and Falling, Fly to follow it. If you have, though, some moments will take on an extra layer of meaning.

This is one of the best, and most brain-tickling, books I’ve read this year. For a poetry geek like me, In Dreams Begin is a seductive dream indeed.

In Dreams Begin — (2010) Publisher: “Close your eyes tightly — tightly — and keep them closed…” From a Victorian Ireland of magic, poetry and rebellion, Ida Jameson, an amateur occultist, reaches out for power, but captures Laura Armstrong, a modern-day graphic artist instead. Now, for the man or demon she loves, each woman must span a bridge through Hell and across history… or destroy it. “Every passionate man is linked with another age, historical or imaginary, where alone he finds images that rouse his energy.” W. B. Yeats Anchored in fact on both sides of history, Laura and Ida, modern rationalist and fin de sicle occultist, are linked from the moment Ida channels Laura into the body of celebrated beauty and Irish freedom-fighter Maud Gonne. When Laura falls — from an ocean and a hundred years away — passionately, Victorianly in love with the young poet W. B. Yeats, their love affair entwines with Irish history and weaves through Yeats’s poetry until Ida discovers something she wants more than magic in the subterranean spaces in between. With her Irish past threatening her orderly present and the man she loves in it, Laura and Yeats — the practical materialist and the poet magus — must find a way to make love last over time, in changing bodies, through modern damnation, and into the mythic past to link their pilgrim souls… or lose them forever.

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KELLY LASITER is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

View all posts by Kelly Lasiter

5 comments

  1. I definitely need to read Skyler White. Sounds like I’d like it.

  2. I think you would, for the brain-tickling factor. :) They’re the kind of books where the whole story kind of…shifts…in your head at the end.

  3. I really enjoyed Skylers’ first book and falling, fly. This one, I thought was good and definitely has its own reader. But I was a little on the wall with this one. Not a bad read. It seemed to jump quickly and I had to doggie paddle to figure out what is going on in the time I was taken to. Not a bad read, just really did have to pay attention. :) Thanks for the review!

  4. I had just the opposite experience–I was more confused by and falling, fly! :) Funny how different books grab different people.

  5. Kelly,

    That is so true! I am always amazed at different takes on books. That is part of what I enjoy about them. Everyone reads something so different. :)

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