by John Swan
The debut novel by a new author can be a disquieting time for all concerned. The author worries about what the reviewers will make of his months – if not years – of hard work. Another worry is how the book will be received by the readers themselves. Professional reviewers – or at least those who pretend they are – hope that they will be among the first to proclaim an emerging talent and worry that other reviewers will not agree with them. In Your Dreams by John Swan is an impressive story for an author’s first outing and does not disappoint. John’s early influences included J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Jordan and that influence – especially of J.R.R. Tolkien – shows in the prologue, A Lullaby of Ages. If the reader takes Mr. Swan’s Tolkien-esque world-building as an indication that The Aldaya Series will be merely yet another attempt to ride the coattails of Middle Earth, then they are making a grave mistake.
The scene is Aldaya, a large island on a water planet not too far – in astronomical terms – from our own. The civilisation there is not what it once was and after suffering a global catastrophe, a sort of dry rot has begun to set in. Sic transit gloria mundi. The squabbling of territories, which goes back over a thousand years, has intensified of late and alliances are on the brink of crumbling. War seems to be almost inevitable. In the centre of all this is High Lord Éolan, Steward of the City of Nausica, council member and spouse to the Premier-elect. Aside from all the disturbing things going on, Éolan’s dreams have been troubled of late. The subject has always been the same, year in and year out; a pale blonde waif-like girl. Those dreams have become much more frequent … and now, quite vivid.
It had taken place somewhere deep in the Endless Marshes to the east, and in an old canoe had lain the body of a girl. She was young, perhaps fifteen, and all the colors in the dream were muted shades of grays and blacks save her golden blond hair. She was ghostly pale, almost to the point of being translucent, and cold to the touch. Éolan had been having similar dreams of the girl off and on for many years, but lately they had become much more frequent.
The girl with the blond hair and purple eyes, of whom Éolan dreams, is named Mim and she has dreams of her own..
A woman stood above her, her kind purple eyes shining with love, and radiant golden hair just as Mim had. She disappeared, and as Mim sat up the woman was now seated with her head turned away and staring into an ornate crystal hand mirror. Upon it were etched images of gods and goddesses dancing under the night sky and beneath ancient trees.
As she began to sing, the mirror began to glow, as did the woman’s eyes. The song was a tale of seven sisters that guarded the heavens, and the melody was so beautiful that Mim floated upwards and over to the woman’s lap. Her reflection showed a toddler, but Mim knew it was her and giggled. The woman began to laugh as well. She let go of the mirror, but instead of it dropping and shattering on the marble floor, it stayed suspended in the air.
Mim is fifteen years old, parentless and lives in a flyspeck of a town named Slaidburn in a blighted area of Endmoor, bordering the Endless Marshes. Slaidburn’s cash crop seems to be mildew and the benefits of civilization appear to be receding; the roads are in deplorable condition and lamplight has become more the rule than the exception. A foundling raised in foster care until the age of 12, Mim has been on her own for three years now, and lacking the necessary wealth for secondary education, works as a kitchen assistant at The Last Stand Tavern which provides her with enough money for clothes and a place to sleep. Like many people in Slaidburn, Mim is just barely getting by.
All of this is about to change for her because, on a chilly, misty night, three unwelcome visitors enter the tavern after closing. Two of them have no name but the third is a thin woman dressed in black who the reader learns is Morra Losis. Morra has an appetite for people … as dinner … and Mim is an intriguing morsel who might otherwise become the blue plate special except that the person – or thing – Morra serves would be quite interested in the girl and thus she decides to spare her but only just. There is nothing for it but to run; first to her rented shed and then to as far from Slaidburn as is humanly possible.
Her hope is to eventually make her way to the seat of learning in Aldaya, the Charis Vale. Interestingly, Lord Éolan is on his way there himself to attend an annual gala which will inaugurate the autumn term at that institution. The weather plays a key role in this story, no doubt because of John Swan’s Bachelor’s Degree in weather and climate. Because of a weather system that just won’t go away, Lord Éolan is forced to travel by coach along the southern highway, bordering the edge of the marshes, to reach the capital of Endmoor in order to catch a north-bound airship to reach his final destination. Their paths cross at the junction of the highway and the road leading to Slaidburn where Mim helps thwart an ambush by brigands. It is from this point forward that their journeys – and indeed, their fates – are intertwined.
The world of Aldaya is one most carefully crafted and John Swan’s prose allows the reader to sense the fetid miasma of the Endless Marshes, the dank atmosphere and crushing poverty of Slaidburn as well as the glories of the cities of Alastria and Iccobar. Those fortunate to read In Your Dreams will catch a glimpse of the terror that permeates both Mim’s encounter with Morra Losis and her perilous journey through the marshes. Through the power of Mr. Swan’s vision, readers will vicariously experience Mim’s sense of awe and wonder as her first journey on an airship lifts her above the mundane world and carries her far away from the blighted province she has known all her life. In fine, John Swan is a lexical mage, conjuring a pellucid world for all who choose to peruse this fantasy.
In a time before ours, when the universe was much younger, a great civilization lived upon the surface of an infant world not much different than our own. It was tucked away on our same distant arm of the galaxy, with its twin moons shining unblemished in the night sky, and its surface full of spirits both great and small.
These two opening sentences are so much more evocative than “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. “
John Swan’s vision for In Your Dreams was to write a story that was both readable and understandable by those thirteen years-old and above. It is this reviewer’s considered opinion that the author has ably achieved his goal. He has created an exciting and enthralling story that should attract readers with a passion for the fantasy genre. Do not let the fact that this is a Young Adult novel dissuade the reader in the least. YA fiction is a not-so-guilty pleasure for many people and In Your Dreams provides all of the reading pleasure with none of the guilt. Mr. Swan envisions the Aldaya Series as a six book saga and promises that this is merely the beginning with many more works to come. If In Your Dreams is any indication, he has a distinguished literary career before him.