Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Dreams of the Sea
Élisabeth Vonarburg
Tesseract Books/Hades Publications, 291 pages

Dreams of the Sea
Élisabeth Vonarburg
Élisabeth Vonarburg was born in France in 1947. She has taught French Literature and Creative Writing on and off at various universities in Quebec since 1973 and does SF translations from English to French. She has been a literary editor for the SF & F Quebecois magazine Solaris from 1979 to 1990 and is now a full-time writer.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Dreams of the Sea is the opening chapter to the five volume Tyranaël cycle, translated here for the first time into English, and written by one of Canada's most respected authors, Élisabeth Vonarburg. Long a prominent figure in Canadian science fiction and academia, Vonarburg's other novels -- The Silent City, Reluctant Voyagers and In the Mother's Land (published also as The Maerlande Chronicles) -- have, in a broad sense, concerned themes of dying cultures, dead civilizations, survivors, planetary colonization and speculative social constructs. Dreams of the Sea, in certain respects, continues this. But to categorize or relegate this novel, or the author's other work, as simply more soft science or anthropological imaginings à la Le Guin is to miss deeper currents and investigations into the human condition and our creations.

As its title may suggest, this novel is constructed around dreams, those of a civilization that has disappeared, and those of colonists fleeing a dying Earth. The two overlap through the visions of an aïlmâdzi, a quasi-spiritual (to say religious implies too much) order of Dreamers who are part of the original inhabitants of Altair. Eïlai Liannon Klaïdaru experiences the dreams of others, not only of her own people, but of Strangers who will come in the future, long after her own people and civilization have disappeared. They will encounter a planet dominated by a luminous and ethereal blue Sea, which like a fog will periodically blanket and recede from portions of the planet, based upon the twin cycles of a solar and lunar eclipse. This phenomenon is a mystery, for it covers the planet to a universal height of a thousand metres, disrupting all electromagnetic activity for a thousand metres more. When the Strangers -- future colonists from Earth -- arrive, they will discover that the Sea resists all attempts at scientific study, that aside from its cyclical and mysterious presence, its only identifiable characteristic is that it causes all living matter it comes in contact with to disappear. But its presence has not always been a factor on the planet, for the intact, abandoned cities of the previous inhabitants can be found below a thousand metres, and great dams have been built around those portions of the continents that lie above the Sea's level, suggesting that the original natives lived part of the time below during the Sea's ecliptic recession. What created this phenomenon, its composition and purpose, or what happened to the planet's original inhabitants, remains unknown: when the colonists from Earth arrive, all that is left are intact houses and cities of an earlier, alien and vanished race, and the omnipresent cycles of the Sea.

The novel is presented as a series of stories within stories, past, present and far future, dreams within dreams that narrate the experiences and histories of differing cultures and races that inherit the same landscape, suggesting possible parallels while at the same time implying, as in actual dreams, that certain visions may reflect the desires or attraction of the dreamer, whereas visions of the future may not necessarily be true. A sense of deeper mysteries haunts the novel throughout, often glimpsed but never fully revealed, mirroring both the existence of the Sea as well as the actual character of dreams. Explanations that evolve, secrets later revealed, tend only to stir further speculation.

This is a complex novel, consisting of multiple layers. The manner of its composition can at times present challenges, especially at the opening, with its constant temporal and locational shifting. Information is withheld, and as suggested above, once gained is as likely to raise further questions as to dispel earlier doubts. And yet the novel's very mystery, the haunted nature of its characters and events, tantalizes and carries the reader forward, always and adroitly waiting for what will next appear. And the fictional realm the author has created is as unforgettable as the memories and half-understood wonders of her alien world, which nevertheless speaks to a deeper, partially gleaned reservoir of shared experience whose contours are consonant with the landscape of dream.

A feat of storytelling which represents much more than mere imagination, in the exploration of its own narrative and the process of its creation, as well as our shared experience of it, the novel becomes in some ways a paean, a celebration and examination of the very urge that spurs speculation, and the manifold dreams that drive humanity, whether to the stars or some more inner imagining. However this is but the first of a pentarch, whose shape is suggested during the novel by the exploration of the pentagonal ruins of Ekriltan. Similar metaphors and symmetries are laid, and while they remain so far incipient, their gestation for the future appears protean. Easily one of the best books I'll read this year, written with singular vision, I look forward to the sequels with great anticipation, and strongly urge you to make the effort to seek this work out.

Copyright © 2004 William Thompson

In addition to the SF Site, William Thompson's reviews have appeared in Interzone, Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. He also has worked as a freelance editor for PS Publishing, editing The Healthy Dead and Grandma Matchie, by Steven Erikson, and Night of Knives, by Cameron Esslemont. He lives in Mesilla, New Mexico.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide