Dream Paris is the sequel to British author Tony Ballantyne’s rather creepy and bizarre Dream London, a novel I very much enjoyed in spite of a sort of terrible and unlike-able protagonist. In this sequel, one of the secondary characters from the first, Anna, takes centre stage as she finds herself partially volunteering, partially forced by fate, to venture back into the dream world, to hopefully find her mother. While Dream Paris suffered from a few flaws that I feel really detracted from its overall quality, Ballantyne hits all the same slightly off-kilter, disconcerting notes that made me enjoy Dream London in spite of itself as well. No matter what you think about the book though, once again, cover artist Joey HiFi frigging knocks it out of the park. Even if the book didn’t have some good things going for it, it’s worth your ten bucks just to get a close look at this cover!
The geography-warping invasion that took over London has been defeated, but thousands of Londoners are missing…Tony Ballantyne reveals a world where reality can no longer be relied upon, in this amazing sequel to Dream London.
Anna is doing her best: there are lots of other seventeen year-olds who are living alone in the partially rebuilt ruins of London. She hopes that by keeping things clean and tidy and by studying hard she can keep the dreams away…
But then a tall, dark stranger with eyes like a fly enters her life. He claims to know where the missing people of London have ended up. He might even know the location of Anna’s missing parents. Anna can help, but to do that she will have to let go of what little normality she has managed to gather around herself and begin the journey to Dream Paris..
I’m trying to figure out how best to enunciate what really rubbed me the wrong way about this novel. Our protagonist Anna shows every sign of being a fantastic character. She’s independent, strong-willed, clever, knows how to stand up for herself, and even if she only does it internally, is very aware of, and appropriately opposed, to all of the bullshit patriarchy nonsense which underpins her, and indeed most, societies. I guess the thing that bothered me was that through the whole book, constantly, she is thinking about the unfairness, the patronizing tones, the proprietary attitudes, but she basically never -does- anything with it. Indeed, even as she’s railing against the problems, she’s also on several occasions, letting herself be led by them.
Probably the best example of this comes from the actually really creative and interesting use of relative pronouns in dream France. In text, each tu and vous is preceded or followed by a number in brackets, which is the linguistic investment of relative status between the two people. So early on, a waiter says (2)vous, which means he is giving them 1 notch of status above him. There’s a super creepy and amazingly effective scene in which this ability to assert ones dominance over another was a matter of life or death, and it was great. The part that just really kicked me in the ‘not really liking this anymore’ gut, was a scene fairly late in the book. Anna knew from a fortune scroll she read at the beginning of the book (these are basically a series of statements of either a place you will be or a feeling you will have in the future, and are always right) that she was, at some point in the proceedings, going to lose her virginity in a presumably rather pleasant way. Aside from the sort of schoolboy prurience of just how often it was referenced, what bothers me is the interchange of dialogue just before it happened. She’s with this guy she has decided she is going to allow to seduce her, and they’re speaking un-inflected, as equals. Partway through the proceedings, this exchange happens:
“Now I want you(2) to take off my trousers…”
The sudden shift in tone, that sudden command, the arrogance!
“Don’t speak to (1)me like that,” I said, putting all the authority I could into the words.
“Why, Anna? Sometimes you(2) must allow yourself to be led.”
“Shh, Anna. Let (3)me show you how it’s done…”
That uptick from 2 to 3 right at the end just gave me the jibblies all over. She’s spent this whole book struggling to maintain her independence in the face of people basically trying to use and manipulate her throughout, and her very first sexual experience is with somebody who presented themselves as an equal, and then just trampled over her agency. To make matters worse, that scene fades to black and fades back in with her describing herself as ‘relaxed and contented for the first time in months.’ So you basically just turned this strong and independent character from Anna into frigging Anastasia, and that really wasn’t cool.
Leaving aside my problems with the way they handled Anna’s arc, the rest of the story was every bit as creepy and great as Dream London was. All of the ways things there just don’t work the way they do in reality are very well presented and described. And to make matters even better, we got a taste of it in the actual mechanical presentation of the book itself. It took me surprisingly long to notice that the chapters run backwards, but they also bring back the bizarre changes to numbers that so freaked me out in Dream London. The value of pi is not an irrational number in the dream world, but is instead (a feeling of fulfilment), because there are no fractions in the Dream World. That means all their circles are just a little off, with all the consequences that would have for so many things. I wonder if maybe Ballantyne is from the Dream World himself, in that he tells great stories, but something about his protagonists is just a little bit off.
Generally, this was a fine book. Ballantyne’s theming and setting are fantastic. His plot is engaging and mixes in exactly the right amount of creepy to set the tone. He loses me on the characters, but that can absolutely be a taste thing on my part. I have a tendency to allow the presentation of a character to set some expectations for me, and then if they fail to meet those expectations I’m disappointed. If that doesn’t sound like you, or you’re willing to deal with an off character in the name of an otherwise great story, Dream London and Dream Paris are for you.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Solaris via Netgalley.