After three years, the long-awaited sequel to Libba Bray's The Diviners has finally hit shelves!
Since The Diviners is one of my favorite books of all time, my expectations for Lair of Dreams were pretty darn high. Probably too high, really. Few books can live up to three years of waiting, especially when readers are expecting for it to be another "best book of all time."
Luckily, although Lair of Dreams is far from perfect, it is a truly beautiful book. It manages to recapture the magic of its predecessor while bringing its readers something new, and Libba Bray's characters and prose enchant from the start. In this addition to the Diviners series, 1920s New York is experiencing Diviners Mania, with everyone wanting a piece of those newly-discovered seers and miracle-workers. But a deadly sleeping sickness is sweeping through Chinatown, and no one knows who it might strike next.
Lair of Dreams is fully of fascinating, well-drawn characters, and is absolutely brimming with diversity. Anyone who claims that you can't have or don't need diversity in historical fiction needs to read this book. We've got Irish-Chinese Ling, who has to use braces to walk after surviving polio and develops a crush on another girl. Or Memphis, who dreams of being part of the Harlem Renaissance, and his white, small-town, dream-big dancer girlfriend Theta, running from a murder she accidentally committed. We see Jewish immigrant Sam who's reinventing himself in order to succeed, and Evie, the Sweetheart Seer, who parties until she forgets, and Henry, who's searching for his lost lover Louis in dreams. The line-up of protagonists can make it slightly hard to get re-invested in the book at first, since the narrative jumps perspective so much, but every one of them is compelling and unique.
And Lair of Dreams isn't just nominally diverse. It has diversity in its settings, in its secondary characters, and in its perspective, addressing issues of racism, prejudiced hysteria, and the dark underside of the glittering twenties that weren't so glittering for everyone.
The novel is written in the gorgeous prose that Libba Bray is known for, with not a single word wasted. It's lush, immersive and thematic, treating 1920s Manhattan as a compelling character all of its own, treating dreams with such skill that they feel like a character in the novel too. Her worldbuilding, her attention to detail, the voices of her characters, the life she imbues her setting... Libba Bray really offers everything as a novelist, and it's all on display here.
Unfortunately, the novel does have a few issues. It's slow to start, with the plot very much a slow burn. The inclusion of so many different disparate characters and plotlines, most of which didn't seem connected to the main "sleeping sickness" plot until near the end, also made it difficult to get hooked. I read the first 30% of the novel with a kind of detached appreciation, knowing it was fantastic, but not feeling particularly compelled to read multiple chapters or pick it up quickly again.
The novel is also written in third person omniscient, meaning that we jump around and hear different characters' perspectives within single scenes. This is good for getting a more objective "bird's eye view" look at what everyone is thinking or feeling, but it's a style that I find slightly jarring, which hurt the reading experience a bit.
But once the story comes together, it really comes together. This is punch-you-in-the-gut novel, gripping and emotional, with one realization in particular that left me gaping at the book in dawning horror and that I'm still not recovered from weeks later. It took me a week to read the first third of this book and a day to read the rest, and I closed it both desperate for the next instalment and envious of those people who still got to experience this one.
If you read and enjoyed The Diviners, definitely read this one. And if you haven't read the Diviners... I recommend you go read that, and then read this one, without the agonizing three year wait in between.