A place where dreams are borne
NEW Zealand author Elizabeth Knox has written a strikingly original fantasy tale. In fact, she has written two because The Invisible Road is the re- release in a single book of her novels Dreamhunter and Dreamquake .
The story is set in what could easily be early 20th- century Australia or NZ, but with a mighty twist. Her world contains the mysterious Place which only a few, known as Dreamhunters, can enter. They do so to catch dreams, which are broadcast to sleepers in the real world. Dreams are sold to hospitals to heal the sick, to dream palaces for entertainment or to individuals for nefarious purposes at which Knox only hints.
The author does a first- rate job of imagining the changes brought about by this phenomenon, including how the use of dreams and nightmares reshapes culture, politics and the economy. This provides a strong backdrop to other themes and many secrets, including the question of whose dreams they are in the first place.
Knox’s style resembles that of Philip Pullman in his lauded His Dark Materials trilogy. These novels are also set in a world that, except for its magical differences, resembles our own. Sometimes less can prove to be more, and in both cases the spare use of magic and other fantasy devices serves to better highlight the central story.
Pullman is rightly regarded as one of the best modern fantasy writers. Knox deserves to be equally well regarded. Her novel is of a similar quality and imaginative force.
What sets them apart is how their work is readily accessible to a broad range of ages. The Invisible Road may be full of dark themes and occasionally contain the stuff of nightmares, but it is a great read for high schoolers through to adults.
Fantasy novels often focus on a young hero set the task of saving the world from a seemingly invincible evil power. The Invisible Road is different. Although it is a coming- of- age story, there is no evil to be opposed and the villains have shades of grey. The threats are ones of overweening political ambition and the exploitation of vulnerable people. This proves an advantage of the work. It is refreshing to see fantasy writing tackling themes closer to home.
The novel centres on the government’s misuse of dreams taken from the Place. It seems politicians have seen the possibilities of using dreams to manipulate the population and to ensure compliance. This gives the book a surprising political flavour usually absent from fantasy writing.
The quality of this book is not only borne out in its vivid realisation of a world in which dreams can be captured and sold. The tale is, in fact, at its strongest in dealing with the relationships of the key characters, Laura and Rose. The two teenagers are drawn with an integrity and honesty rarely seen in the fantasy genre. Their relationship is beautifully rendered in capturing a growing distance between them as they depart childhood. This forms the bedrock of the book. It
is a foundation often absent in other fantasy novels that aim high in their imaginative output but achieve far less in terms of characterisation.
My only quibbles are minor. Although The Invisible Road is presented as an integrated, single work, the transition between the two earlier books is not seamless. While one chapter flows into the next, it is obvious where the earlier books were separated when the reader is treated to an awkward recapping of the story.
Despite this, the story does work better as a single volume. The first book left many threads dangling, and what could have been an unsatisfying ending and a frustrating wait for the second instalment is instead merely an excellent building block for a satisfying conclusion. Knox has emerged as an important talent in the field of fantasy writing. It is rare to find a fantasy novel that so well combines a coherent imaginative vision with honest characters of depth and substance. If you have not read the earlier incarnations of this book, make sure you read this one. It is the best fantasy novel I have read this year.