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The Dreaming Land by E. P. Clark – Series Review: Books I-III

The Dreaming Land by E. P. Clark – Series Review: Books I-III
3.75
Book Name: The Dreaming Land I: The Challenge, The Dreaming Land II: The Journey, and The Dreaming Land III: The Sacrifice
Author: E. P. Clark
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Romance
Release Date: August 30, 2018, October 12, 2018, and November 20, 2018

I discovered E. P. Clark a couple years ago when I read (and loved) the first book in the Zemnian series, The Midnight Land. Set about a hundred years later, The Dreaming Land books provide a highly entertaining finish to this series set in a fantasy version of the Russian Empire, in which women hold all economic and political power.

As a whole, the series encompasses seven novels divided into three sets (The Midnight Land, volumes I and II; The Breathing Sea I and II; and The Dreaming Land I-III). That’s a lot of words, and there’s a lot to love. The worldbuilding is phenomenal, starting with a mythology based on Russian folklore that may be unfamiliar to many Western readers (at least it was to me). Clark is a Russian language professor and deeply familiar with Russian history, literature, and culture, and she populates her world with leshiye (tree spirits), domoviye (house spirits), and talking animals who serve as spiritual guides to her protagonists.

The world has a deep history, and each set of stories revolves around a period of major change initiated by the main character (Slava in The Midnight Land, Dasha in The Breathing Sea, and Valya in The Dreaming Land). All three women are descended from of the founding matriarch of Zem, a formidable woman who forged her empire out of “blood and fire” and whose legacy haunts each story. The landscape also plays a major role in the narrative, and Clark’s lovely prose wonderfully connects each character with tundra, taiga, sea, and steppe.

My favorite aspect of the worldbuilding is the gender dynamics. Zem is a true matriarchy—not only is descent traced through the matrilineal line, but women hold primacy in every aspect of Zemnian society. Clark wryly comments on inherent bias in patriarchal societies by taking traditional stereotypes of female and male strengths and weaknesses and twisting them into the Zemnian rationale for why female superiority is “natural.” In the Midnight Land and Breathing Sea, the women of Zem generally believe men are little more than rage-prone brutes who are incapable of making rational decisions and cannot be trusted with any sort of real authority or responsibility. Poor men can work only as guards, foot soldiers, and heavy laborers, while wealthy men are cloistered as pampered brood stallions. However, Clark’s intent is not to bash men but to comment on how preconceived gender roles constrain opportunities and behavior alike. She undercuts her characters’ beliefs by featuring men who break out of their proscribed roles and prove themselves more capable than their female “betters” believe them to be.

Clark explores this theme most effectively in The Dreaming Land series, where a romance between Valya and the young Prince Ivan Velikokrasnov plays a central role in the story. By the time The Dreaming Land trilogy takes place, Zemnian society has progressed to the point where men can inherit property and so have more freedom and autonomy than they had in the earlier books, but Zemnian women (including Valya) still look upon their menfolk as only slightly more capable than children. The story begins when Valya’s cousin, Empress Sera, orders her to court and wed Ivan, as a politically advantageous marriage. However, Ivan is the only child of Valya’s archrival, Princess Marina Velikokrasnova. The two women have been at odds for roughly a decade, ever since Valya tried to steal Marina’s betrothed (and Ivan’s future stepfather) for herself.

Despite this awkward social situation, Valya follows the empress’s orders and begins wooing Ivan. Meanwhile, she also learns that a human trafficking network has been operating beneath the noses of Zem’s ruling nobility. Unlike the docile Slava in Midnight Land and the young, inexperienced Dasha of Breathing Sea, Valya is a renowned warrior who has already fought against slavers and the Hordes in the land east of Zem. Determined to stop the slave trade, she recruits a team of young nobles, including Ivan, to bring the traffickers to justice. Along the way, Ivan comes to serve as Valya’s moral center and guide as she navigates the ethical and economic complexities underlying the slavery ring, not least of which is the discovery that Ivan’s mother may be involved.

The romance adds a layer to the narrative that was absent from the previous Zem novels, which contained only a few chaste romantic interludes. In contrast, as Valya’s romance with Ivan progresses, their encounters become increasingly explicit. The sex scenes are well written and may have readers reaching for a hand fan or ducking into a cold shower. Those who prefer a fade to black between the first kiss and the afterglow should be warned that Clark describes everything in between in blushing detail.

The Dreaming Land is narrated from Valya’s point of view in first person, which differs from the earlier books in the series, which were each told in limited third person (although entirely from the perspective of Slava or Dasha, Valya’s forbearers). The change in narration style was a good choice overall. In Midnight Land and Breathing Sea, the protagonists discover hidden powers and must gain the confidence necessary to achieve goals they didn’t necessarily know about at the start of the books. A key part of their journey is interaction with the environment and other characters so they can learn and grow.

In Dreaming Land, Valya is highly competent and confident already. She discovers a hidden power as well, but her journey requires her to unlearn her old ways through self-examination, which is more suited to the internal monologue of first-person narration. Comparing the three sets of novels, I thought the secondary characters in the earlier books were more vivid and compelling than the supporting cast in The Dreaming Land. However, this may be because Valya not only lacks the empathy and insight of her literary predecessors in Zem, but also may be a somewhat unreliable narrator because of her (necessary) self-absorption.

Clark models her storytelling approach on Russian classical literature, and lovers of Russian lit may relish the way she mirrors influences such as Eugene Onegin. I’m not a natural fan of the lengthy introspection one finds in Russian novels, and I sometimes found the pacing slowed over-much by looping redundancies in thoughts and dialogue.

The books are very long (450-550 pages each), and one must read all the volumes in each set to get the full story. That isn’t unusual in fantasy series, except Clark also employs a literary technique called romantic fragmentism, and the breaks between volumes can be jarring. Volume I of Dreaming Land ends in the middle of a conversation, and volumeII picks up right where it left off, which I found irksome. Fortunately, the break between volumes II and III was a well-executed cliff-hanger that made me rush to open the third book, and overall these quibbles never stopped me from wanting to find out what happened next.

All in all, The Dreaming Land offers readers a unique setting with a compelling protagonist battling to end human suffering. Her quest takes her through from city to forest, grasslands to castle, mountain to mine, with combat, magic, intrigue, and romance at every turn. I’m definitely a fan of Clark’s work and look forward to immersing myself in whatever world she introduces us to next.

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