August 8, 2013

Review: Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox

Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox
Series: Dreamhunter Duet, #1
Published: 2006, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Originally 2005)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Hardcover, 365 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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 In an early twentieth-century fantasy world, the island Southland, akin to New Zealand contains an area of land known simply as the Place. The Place is a land of semi-light without any resources able to sustain those fortunate few who possess the ability to traverse its boundaries in search of dreams. But those are not even the strangest aspects of the Place: it is not confined to normal Earthly dimensions. It was discovered by a young man, Tzinga Hame, who found himself transported from his coach ride into the Place as they passed a bend in the road. Since then, many people have tested their luck beside the borders of the Place, for passage into the place ensures a more secure future. Those who can travel into the Place either become dreamhunters, who can collect dreams and then "perform" them for a fee to a sleeping audience in special venues within the normal world, or rangers, there to protect dreamhunters and help enforce laws the government was quick to enact.

As daughters of two of the most powerful dreamhunter families, the Hames and the Tiebolds, all eyes are focused on cousins Laura Hame and Rose Tiebold, who are about to attempt their Try. Ever since the government has started regulating the Place, it has required that those curious to find out if they can travel to the Place must be at least fifteen and do so, and can only attempt through one of the annual events hosted by the government. While Rose is confident that she'll be able to enter the Place and counts down to the Try date eagerly, Laura is not as confident in her ability, or even whether she actually wants to become a dreamhunter. But people don't choose whether they can enter the Place
the Place essentially chooses them, and the results of their Try end up having consequences neither Rose nor Laura imagined possible.

Still confused? That's all right; Dreamhunter is not a novel that lends itself to easy summary. I went into this book knowing just about as much as I summarized here, and that was more than sufficient. Knox's world is something that should be experienced with as little knowledge beforehand as possible; it makes the gradual piecing together of the story's many aspects that much more satisfying. 

Easily the strongest aspect of this novel is the friendship between Laura and Rose. Due to circumstances beyond their of their control (the results of the Try), the two of them are separated from each other for a large portion of the novel. Even apart, however, they continue to influence each other's actions. From Rose, Laura learns to be a little less cautious, a little more willing to take risks and question things. From Laura, Rose learns to be a little more circumspect and how to make the best of her less-than-ideal situation. Theirs is a relationship built upon years of trust and deep understanding, which allows them to still find ways to support one another in person and from afar. All other relationships within the novel pale in comparison to this one, which is as it should be. 

The whole subculture that forms around dreamhunters and the dreams they find within the Place is quite fascinating and something Knox clearly took the time to understand and explore herself. Dreamhunters are not simply glorified entertainers in this world; the social strata they occupy within their society is much higher. Becoming a dreamhunter offers a person economic security and the chance to better their lives. Even with the odds against them, many young people always participate in the Try on the off chance that they do possess the ability to travel to the Place. The life of a dreamhunter isn't all glory, however, as many work themselves beyond the point of physical exhaustion and nutrient-deprivation within the Place in order to catch a dream. And then, upon returning, they only fall asleep to benefit their patrons via a shared dream. Knox hints that a rather solitary, tiring existence is what most dreamhunters can expect. And yet that doesn't stop countless people from hoping to fill those ranks.

Although magic and means of innovation distinguish this world from our own, the cultures are not ultimately very different. Here people are willing to endure physical and emotional trauma to become one of the elite as a dreamhunter, and are content to enjoy shared dreams as entertainment. From what readers can tell, it seems as though paying for sleep is one of the better ways to spend one's time. And, of course, the constant presence of dreams cannot help but bring up questions on what constitutes reality and true emotion. There's still so much about this world and the role of dreams that can be unpacked, and I hope that Knox will continue to do so in the sequel, Dreamquake.

Dreamhunter is not a book that will work for everyone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's an unsual book, especially unusual when viewed in comparison to most fantasies marketed to a YA audience. The pacing is very slow at times (especially in the beginning), the worldbuilding almost overwhelmingly extensive, and the characters, while technically teens, act far older than their ages. And yet having the chance to explore this fully-functioning and imaginative world was more than worth my initial struggle. Laura and Rose are admirable heroines, and their story is one I am fully invested in. And did I mention that this first installment ended with hints of government conspiracies and political intrigue? What more can I want from a fantasy novel? If you find yourself asking that exact same question, then I encourage you to give Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox a read.

Rating: 4 stars
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. This sounds so intriguing! I've never heard of this one before. I love that the friendship takes center stage in the narrative, it is rare to find books in which friendship is the strongest relationship. I may have to check this out sometime. Wonderful review!

    1. Thanks, Natalie! If you're a fantasy fan then I definitely encourage you to give this a try (preferably when you're in the mood to enjoy a longer, slower work of fiction).

  2. I've never heard of this and probably wouldn't have even glanced at it on the shelves because of the cover, but it sounds REALLY good. I'm not entirely sure if it's for me, but I love a novel that focuses on friendship and political intrigue, so I'm determined to give this a try. Fantastic review, Amanda, and thanks for introducing me to this one! :)

    1. Yeah, it doesn't have the best cover haha. But once you get past that, I thought the contents were fantastic. And I hope you do give it a try - and, even better, that you find that it also works for you! I need more people to spread the love. Fingers crossed!

  3. Wow this sounds like a really complicated book Amanda, I think I would definitely fall into the category of those readers who this book wouldn't be for. But I am glad that you were able to appreciate the great parts of this book. It does sound like an interesting read! Lovely review :)

    1. I'm not sure if complicated is the right word - but it definitely needs to be digested slowly. I think an important part of becoming a better reader is realizing when things just don't work for you personally, you know? And there are always so many other books that call to us that we really shouldn't waste time reading what we won't like. I'm glad you enjoyed reading my review nonetheless, Jasprit!

  4. I totally remember reading this about four or five years ago and being really intrigued by it. I don't remember a lot of the details but I vaguely remember liking it. Your review brought some of it back!

    1. Oh I love it when reading a review brings back memories of a past experience reading that book - although it usually ends with me wanting to re-read it right then and there. And I'm glad my review brought back some memories for you. :)


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