When Keno was 15, he hacked into a system he shouldn't have. Mason and Wolf were sent to kill him but couldn't bring themselves to do it, so instead Keno was kept prisoner at a facility run by a mysterious group known as the Trust. Mason, Wolf, and others who work for the Trust are sent out to kill monsters, but Mason, in particular, has begun to doubt that the Trust is any better than the monsters he's asked to kill.
Mason and Wolf do their best to protect Keno, but they can't be around all the time. When Keno is 19 or 20 years old, one of the higher ups in the Trust kills someone in order to open a Gate to another world, and then he rapes Keno. Tamazusa, one of the beings who lives in the other world, kills Keno's rapist and brings Keno back to her world, the Dreamlands, in order to present him as a gift to Samojirou. Although Tamazusa and Samojirou were (are?) consorts, they've never been lovers - Tamazusa was too badly mistreated by men when she was human to want to have anything to do with sex, and Samojirou prefers men.
Luckily for Keno, Samojirou prefers his lovers willing. While the Trust gears up to invade the Dreamlands by force, with Mason and Wolf as part of the initial invading force, Keno tries to heal both physically and emotionally. Because Keno is the avatar of Samojirou's former lover, who was the son of Fuse, a powerful being in the Dreamlands, it's not safe for him to be seen as himself. Keno is taught how to dress and act like a woman, and he finds himself surprisingly comfortable as "Sakura-chan." Although Keno gradually begins to trust and even love Samojirou, the memories of his rape still frighten him.
Once the Trust figures out how to send their people to the Dreamlands, what little peace and contentment Keno has been able to find may be in danger.
I pretty much flew through the first half of this book. I loved the balance between the fairly dark storyline involving the Trust and Samojirou's attempts to win Keno's trust. I loved pretty much everything that went on in the Dreamlands: the way Tamazusa and Samojirou interacted, Keno getting used to his new life in the Dreamlands, and Keno slowly building up confidence as Sakura.
Since there are many, many authors I am unfamiliar with in the e-book world, my e-book buying strategies have gone something like this: make a list of all books that have a style of cover art I like, read reviews of those books, and then read the excerpts of any books that are still in my wishlist after I read reviews. Yes, my very first step involves judging books by their covers - it was the easiest way to come up with a short list of e-books to potentially buy, because so many e-books have covers that don't appeal to me.
Being a manga and anime fan, manga and anime inspired e-book cover art is almost guaranteed to put a book on my initial list. That's how things went with Dreamlands. The reviews I read indicated that the book would have some things I might like, but I was a little worried when I read that Dreamlands featured first person perspective, alternating from three different characters' perspectives. First person from one person's perspective is hard enough for a lot of authors - first person from three different characters' perspective seemed like a recipe for disaster. I read All Romance's excerpt, which gave me a taste of Ivey's writing from each of the three perspectives, Mason, Samojirou, and Keno, and decided I was willing to give this book a chance.
At first, I didn't mind the first person perspective, and even kind of liked it. Mason, Samojirou, and Keno all had very distinct perspectives. Mason was basically a good guy, but hardened by his experiences in prison and working for the Trust. He didn't have a whole lot of power in the organization, but he still wanted to do what he could for Keno, feeling guilty about his part in Keno's imprisonment, even though his only other choice would have been to kill 15-year-old Keno. Samojirou, too, was not an innocent, although he was a more subtle person overall than Mason. For a good portion of the story, Keno was frightened and damaged, having been raped just prior to the start of the book. He had been kept prisoner for over 4 years and, after being given to Samojirou as a gift, expected even more mistreatment.
In the second half of the book, particularly after Keno and Fuse were kidnapped, I became more intensely aware of just how bad a choice Ivey made when she decided to write the book in the first person. For one thing, it resulted in a lot of repetition. Often, the time periods covered by characters' perspectives overlapped a little. Sometimes this worked out very well - I enjoyed getting to see "Sakura" from Mason's perspective, before he knew that Sakura was Keno, and then getting to see the same scenes again from Keno or Samojirou's eyes.
Other times, however, I felt like the perspective choice didn't really add anything to the story and just resulted in me having to read about the same scene or about the same sort of things again for no particular reason. For example, there was one character who had a habit of making snide comments about Tamazusa and others in Russian. Samojirou picked up on this. So did Mason. In fact, in one part of the book, Mason noticed and was annoyed by the snide comments at least twice within just a few paragraphs. It got to the point where I started wishing Tamazusa would kill her, just so that I wouldn't have to read about yet another character noticing, once again, that she was saying something insulting (and incredibly stupid, considering she was without a weapon and completely at Tamazusa's mercy).
First person perspective always puts limits on what an author can show the reader. Three people might seem like more than enough to get over this particular problem, but did you read my synopsis? Some of these characters have incredibly complex pasts. Tamazusa and Fuse's entire histories were related as stories told to Mason or Keno. At least Samojirou's perspective was one of the three used, so his past with his former lover was worked into the book a bit better. I could barely follow along during the parts about Fuse and Tamazusa's pasts.
And, since I'm on the subject of confusion, I might as well mention that I'm still not sure what an avatar is - at first, I thought "avatar" meant "one of Fuse's sons, reborn," but then a couple of Fuse's sons (all their names start with Inu - don't ask me to remember who's who) met their avatars, so obviously that's not the case.
While I enjoyed the storyline involving the Trust, up to a point, I would have loved it if the book had showed Samojirou and Keno interacting more. For me, some of the strongest scenes in the book were the ones where Keno and Samojirou were getting to know each other and keeping each other company. I was really surprised when Keno began learning how to become a woman named Sakura - I don't think any of the reviews I read mentioned cross-dressing, or, if they did, that detail slipped my mind - but once I got over the shock I actually found that I liked Keno better when he was Sakura. Keno as Keno was tense and frightened. Keno as Sakura was more confident and relaxed. Although I've read a lot of manga and watched a lot of anime that features cross-dressing, I don't think I've ever read a book in which one of the main characters cross-dresses. I thought Ivey handled it well, and I hope that the next book features more scenes with Samojirou and Keno/Sakura.
Don't expect this book to have much in the way of sex - I think there's only one scene that qualifies as a sex scene. By the end of the book, Keno is still limited in what he's willing to do with Samojirou, even though he trusts him and knows Samojirou won't purposefully hurt him the way his rapist did. Dreamlands focuses much more on the emotional aspects of Keno and Samojirou's relationship, rather than the physical.
Overall, this book was...frustrating. I wish I could say it was a really wonderful book. I think it could have been, had some things been handled differently. Some aspects of the story were extremely complex and, as they were written, very hard to follow and remember - thinking about it now, I wonder how much of the complexity was really necessary. I can only assume that things like that one telepathic character (whose abilities, as far as I could tell, weren't used at all in this book) and the revelations about Mason and Wolf's connection to Fuse will be getting more attention in the next book - unfortunately, in this book, all things like this did was confuse me.
Even though there were things I disliked about the book, I really loved reading about Samojirou and Keno's relationship. I would have been happy if there had been fewer passages from Mason's perspective, and more from Keno and Samojirou's perspectives. I wanted to know how things would turn out for them. So, while I worry that the second book will suffer from some of the same problems this book did, I look forward to reading it because it will give me more of Keno and Samojirou's story. I'm crossing my fingers that things go well for them - the next book's description sounds ominous.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie - Conqueror of Shamballa (anime movie) - I was originally just going to put the movie on this list, but the movie would probably be difficult to follow if you haven't see the anime. In the movie, Edward, now separated from his younger brother and stuck in our world, learns about a group that is trying to create a gate to his world, which they assume is a utopia. The Trust and their obsession with opening a gate to the Dreamlands reminded me a lot of the group Edward deals with in the movie.
- The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol. 1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono; The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - Like in Dreamlands, this series has characters whose stories span several centuries. This began as a light novel series - in the first book, a girl from our world was taken to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms after being told that's where she came from and that she was now the ruler of one of the kingdoms. Unfortunately, the entire series was never published in the US (it was one of Tokyopop's titles, and it probably didn't help that their translation was pretty clunky), and the anime doesn't cover the entire series. Even so, don't be afraid to try it out.
- Witch Hunter Robin (anime TV series) - This series follows a group of people who are part of an organization that hunts down and either kills or imprisons witches. Similar to the Trust, it's debatable how much on the side of good this organization really is. Keno's situation reminded me of one particular character in this series, a guy who was basically turned into live-in tech support after he was caught hacking into the organization's system or something.
- Bitten (book) by Kelley Armstrong - What I really wanted to list was Stolen, the second book in the series, but I think it's probably best to have read Bitten first. Bitten introduces Elena, the only female werewolf in existence. In Stolen, Elena is kidnapped and kept prisoner with a bunch of other supernaturals. It's been ages since I read this book, but the Trust and its habit of keeping telepaths and other people with special abilities around reminded me of it.
- The Black Jewels Trilogy (book) by Anne Bishop - If you'd like another slowly developing romance between an emotionally damaged character and someone who has had a long, difficult past, you might want to try this trilogy. I consider it to be even darker than Ivey's book. The trilogy takes place in a fantasy world in which certain people, members of the Blood, carry Jewels - the darker the Jewel, the more powerful the person. Daemon, one of the few remaining dark Jeweled Blood still in existence, has dreamed of and hoped for the woman who will help overthrow Dorothea, who warped Blood society. When he finds the person he was looking for, she turns out to be a little girl. Somehow, he and others have to help her survive and stay safe long enough to grow into her own power.