"Relief is a memory you will forget."
'In Restless Dreams (The Phantasmer Cycle Book 1)' by Wren Handman is one of those seemingly innocuous titles that slowly shows itself as much, much more than it appears to be.
The pitch is this.. the main character, Sylvia, is a teenage girl whose mother's attempted suicide lands her in the big city. She and her brother end up there with their estranged dad, the rich prep school she's forced to attend, a complete departure from the life she knew.. and one she's struggling to navigate at best.
To make bad into worse, she's the most recent incarnation of something the neighboring fae world refers to as a Phantasmer, a human who can literally change everything simply by believing. Lucky girl, that places her right in the middle between the two warring Courts. The Seelie and Unseelie both have their own strategies for dealing with her ability, and the young men trying to sway her loyalties have intentions of their own.
"When you get older, plainer, saner, when you remember all the danger we came from." -- "Burning like embers, falling, tender, long before the days of no surrender. Years ago, and well you know..."
At the start of the book, it actually seems to center mostly around Sylvia's day to day situation in New York. Some of her classmates are typically awful, but she meets a couple of people who seem nice. As she trudges through her new situation, it's just kind of your average story.
So, when she first really crosses paths with one of the fae and the dialogue takes a sharp dip into this beautifully crafted sort of homage to all things Wonderland, I found myself straightening up in my chair and reassessing the writer entirely.
Certainly, some of the similarities are overt and deliberate, but I feel like there are glimpses of other worlds here too. Influences, even if subconscious, on the author.
"This new thing is made up of barbed wire and gunny sack, a scarecrow of madness. It twitters, something halfway between a laugh and the scream of ripping metal."
Initially, that snippet seemed most obviously some darker combination of Oz, but for me it felt like something I might see in Kingdom Hearts. In my mind, it was both frightening and ridiculous, but it still made me uneasy and I loved that.
There's this brilliant character whose intentions you're never quite certain of. Everything you're shown says one thing about him, yet my instincts continued down their own road. He's a creature of darkness wrapped in some strange joy, who loves to sort of linger in the gray.. toying with anyone who might be able to glimpse him. Ultimately, good or bad.. he's my favorite.. simply for the way he's able to wander along that line, swerving this way and that without much concern for the consequences. Besides, even wickedly so, he's delightfully playful.
I feel like the author really benefitted from her work in scripts. While oft times, this can throw a writer off, resulting in scenes that only play out well in a visual medium, Handman has a unique mastery of how best to utilize what she knows. She's able to create these moments (and if you read this, you'll see one during the night of the party.. there are soaps and hand creams involved, just remember that much), that are warm and funny, visualized so well that I can still replay the images in my memory.
"I don't know...Did you know your belt is made of sorrow?" I ask. -- He gives me an odd look. "You're still high, aren't you?"
Beneath the most obvious plotlines, the changing of the world and the battle between the two Courts, even the potential romantic angles.. what I really love is the origin story of their world and the history within it. The creation of the cycles these beings have been subjected to is uniquely inventive and held me fascinated. The connections they held to great artists, how they benefitted from the work they were putting out into the world, is incredibly unconventional in the best way.
Wren made me laugh out loud, leaving me to explain my strange outbursts to my family.. and made me cry, which thankfully no one was present for. It can't be proven. Never happened. *cough* Really though, the truth is, I was terribly sad and hopeful for all of the fae. Even those who didn't necessarily deserve it.