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“House of Dreams” by Michael Swanwick

“House of Dreams” by Michael Swanwick
Book Name: "House of Dreams"
Author: Michael Swanwick
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: eBook / Online on
Genre(s): Fantasy / Short Story
Release Date: November 27, 2013

I would often sit with my friends and argue over which were the best or worst superpowers. The worst superpowers regarded were having the ability to see three seconds into the future, but your reflexes are three seconds slower or simply being able to control condensation but nothing else. But when it came to the best superpowers the debate would be more intriguing. It would be easy to pick powers akin to the Phoenix Force, or Reality Manipulation – one friend even suggested any form of chemical–kinesis simply because it can evolve into near god like potential – but the one that really made us nod our heads in appreciative unison was illusion control.

In the short story of “House of Dreams” we see the true force of being able to manipulate someone’s perception of the world around them. Set against a backdrop of hellish cold empty landscapes, in an alternate history Earth of magic and might, “House of Dreams” shows a world that Swanwick must love dearly. It feels full, even in this short story, based in the world of the Mongolian Wizard series. This fullness is what made this story such a pleasure to read. Seeing Mongol doctors working to extract information from their prisoners using perception manipulation is a sentence that is just glorious to write, and it is even more glorious to read a story based around this concept. A rich world, even in only a few thousand words, is just as important as a fine story, and this alternate history Earth is a fine example of such.

After reading the thread “Fantasy Counterpart Culture: How close is too close?” on the Fantasy-Faction forum it was interesting returning to “House of Dreams”. Being a literal counter Earth, rather than having relative cultures, it is (theoretically) easier for Swanwick to show how real cultures would utilise magic. However, the Mongolian Empire is still strong in this world, and to continue a culture’s history is just as hard as to create a new equivalent culture. To create a realistic route for a civilisation that doesn’t ignore key attributes of that culture, or simplify them for the purposes of storytelling, takes a certain amount of finesse.

“House of Dreams” feels part of a fuller world, and though we don’t see much of the grander politics and histories of Dr. Nergüi’s Mongol homeland, this lack of superfluous context helps us focus on the story at hand. Though I can feel the history of the world in the background, it is decidedly in the background, which for a story so short does make it a far easier read. There is no tiptoeing around stereotyping or blundering into a wall of history, there is just a story, in a world, with characters.

And what a story! To return to my point about illusion control, watching a man desperately try and grab a knife in his range and feebly miss every time really adds to the futility of his struggle. The cold landscape, the isolation and the near medical precision of their control over their prisoner merely adds to the crushing weight of this man’s toil. It is wonderfully done.

The only thing I found off-putting was the lack of continuation in the tale. I was expecting a great shift, but there was none. Without spoiling any more, yes there is a change in the prisoner’s circumstances, but it all seems to fizzle away. I feel like I saw one moment of normality within a war – even if that normality is horrific – but I felt like I needed something. The clever Beckettian pun at the end, though bringing a smile to my face, didn’t quell my feeling that I should have been offered something more. I suppose this then succeeds in a sense, because now I need to read more Mongolian Wizard works. Perhaps that was his intention, but I still think it should hold up on its own, and the ending definitely left me wanting.

But at the end of the day “House of Dreams” is a story that functions a lovely little bite-sized chunk of a war that seems infinitely broader in scope. I feel like I saw just something mundane in battle. Capture prisoner. Use magic. Get information. Move on. If you can make magic feel mundane to me, but also brilliantly exciting, you have succeeded on so many levels. I love seeing people just live with magic, and this is beautifully juxtaposed against what strange dreams truly feel like. Compared to my usual love of excessive verbiage and vocabulary extraordinary, Swanwick accomplishes the same interest with a lovely, far more simple flow. Usually dreams are depicted with bizarre language; Swanwick just makes it feel dream-like.

“House of Dreams” is the perfect example of what a short story should be like. A kind of lunch break story. It may not change the world, it may not deliver something that breaks convention and leaves me shocked for years, but it entertained, and I can’t ask for any more.


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