Dormia (Dormia #1)

Title: Dormia

Author: Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski

Alfonso is cursed with a strange kind of sleepwalking. Where other people might find themselves walking down a street, he finds himself climbing trees or tightrope-walking power lines. He can’t figure out why his sleeping-self does so many crazy things, but when his sleeping-self grows a mysterious plant, he finds himself on a wild adventure across the globe. The plant he has grown is a rare bloom that must be planted in its home city before its parent tree dies, or hundreds of people who depend on the tree will perish.

Well, I finished.

It took me a while to figure out what exactly made this adventure something I plowed through more than enjoyed. Sure, Alfonso’s sleep-based powers are fairly formulaic, but I don’t usually have a problem with that. I think part of the issue was that I never fully bought into the premise. A special form of sleepwalking that makes you do additional/crazy things, yes. A society of people who never sleep the way we would understand sleep because their “sleep” is more active than their waking hours—maybe. Given all the advantages for sleepers, it’s amazing anyone would wake up at all. Additionally, since it seems most people don’t really remember what they do while asleep, life would be mostly unconscious in these cities, which seems problematic. Doesn’t any daring soul want to enjoy his sports prowess or other skill by being aware of what he’s doing?

Also, what happens when your waking self is active all day and your sleeping self is active all night? Sleep is treated as a mostly mental process with little regard to the physical impact of spending all your sleeping hours active. And if you never remember what you did while asleep, how would the fact that you live most of your life oblivious of others affect your ability to have relationships? Also, why would it matter what you did while asleep, since no one not a knight can remember anyway? Which is a plot hole for a certain character because if no one can remember what you did while asleep they certainly shouldn’t care if you were on their sleeping team for some sport.

This disregard of the physical touches other areas too. For example, Hill talks about flying around the world while sleeping—and never mentions refueling. A 56+ hour flight on one tank? Forget the pilot, that aircraft ought to make history. If he did somehow refuel the plane while sleeping, apparently no one he dealt with at airports noticed he was asleep. Hill also later regrets he didn’t try to fly a rickety old seaplane across the ocean to shorten the journey, which even if the plane was capable still implies he intended to make the trip using a single tank of fuel.

Another thing that bothered me was that the only character who has an actual arc is Bilblox, and he’s supposed to be a secondary character. Even for Alfonso, the only struggle that isn’t related to staying alive is about Bilblox and how much he can afford to trust the man. Bilblox is a moral man, but he’s got some interesting battles that pit his morals against his desire and his need to see. Especially after he learns that “just one more time” is what made the bad guys as evil as they are.

There were hints that something more interesting might happen with other characters—Kiril showed some signs of being more than the flat evil everyone said he was, except it was all a bluff. It would’ve been more interesting if he actually had been helping Alfonso. Frankly I was hoping Hill would turn out to be the traitor, but he’s depressingly straightforward. He’s pretty well the same character at the end as he was when you first meet him. After his stunt with testing the woods, it seemed he was trying to waste time to make sure they arrived as late as possible, but turns out he was just being careful.

Third, the book is too long. Too much of the middle is random adventure that may reveal another facet of Dormian life but does nothing to promote either the growth of the characters or spur on the plot. The tension arc feels like this: problem is introduced, someone solves the problem, everyone moves to the next destination. Over and over again. Bilblox is the only long-term unresolved point of character tension (Kiril would count except no one thinks about him outside the rare times he actually shows up).

Basically everyone but Bilblox and Alfonso feels unnecessary to the plot. Or at least I was hoping people with a lot of page time would turn out to be more important. Lars gets a decent chunk of page time, and he only shows up for a little while, imparts a small amount of information, and then never shows up again. The ship captain and crew have a fairly substantial part of the book, but they’re just a taxi service getting Alfonso and company from point A to point B. The focus is all over the place, as Alfonso isn’t even primarily at odds with the Dragoonya. For most of the trip his biggest problems are trying to get the next person in line to give him what he needs to travel a little further.

This leads to problems like the war-plants that show up in the very beginning getting dropped for over 400 pages until they show up again near the end. Why do the Dragoonya have such a neat little weapon and only use it in those two places? What other interesting weapons might they possess? And why, if the Dragoonya are supposed to be the point, do they have the smallest role in the actual plot?

Fourth, there are some pretty bad plot holes. The book has a few riddles, which are okay (though I’m unimpressed with the translation for “I am the Great Sleeper”. . . that’s really what it sounds like?) . . . but although Alfonso has spent the whole book focusing on and solving riddles which are key plot details, he ignores one of the most crucial ones simply because the plot doesn’t want him to figure it out until it’s too late. Alfonso solves riddles like the Cyclops that aren’t even relevant to his journey. Why completely ignore this, when at a minimum he should’ve mistaken it as a clue for someone’s death?

Also, a certain character is wearing sunglasses in a dark room while they’re in a city known to be populated by enemy agents, the worst of which are easily identifiable by their white eyes . . . yet no one tries to peek behind those glasses to determine if this person really is friend or foe.

The bad guy is eventually identified by . . . his fingernails. From a picture that was drawn several hundred years ago. I understand the aging process works differently, but nobody said hair and fingernails stopped growing (or, conversely, no one recognizes how stupidly easy it is to change that detail, if the man ever breaks a nail or trims them). Or that there’s only one person in the world who could possibly have fingernails like that.

Overall this isn’t completely terrible, but there really isn’t anything I would point out to someone as being good. There’s almost certainly a sequel planned, and I would wager Nartam is going to be in it (no dead body = not dead, in my book, although I suppose it might be slightly possible he actually died). I rate this book Neutral.

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