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The Dream Spheres
Elaine Cunningham
TSR Books, 375 pages

The Dream Spheres
Elaine Cunningham
Elaine Cunningham's other novels include Daughter of the Drow (1995) and Tangled Webs (1996), along with her Harpers novels: Silver Shadows, Elfsong, and -- way back -- Elfshadow, the second book in the Harpers series.

Elaine Cunningham Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Thornhold
SF Site Interview: Elaine Cunningham

A review by Don Bassingthwaite

Last year, I reviewed Elaine Cunningham's book, Thornhold. The conclusion of TSR's long-running The Harpers series, it left me asking for more. More of the bard-mage Danilo Thann, more of the bold thief Bronwyn, more of the cantankerous dwarf Ebenezer, more of Waterdeep, the City of Splendours... give me a sequel and give it to me now!

So it was with a great deal of satisfaction that I got my hands on Elaine's new book, The Dream Spheres. It's not exactly a sequel to Thornhold as such (the Harpers barely put in an appearance), but it is a continuation. The Dream Spheres returns to Elaine's best known characters from previous novels -- Danilo Thann, Arilyn Moonblade, and Elaith Craulnober -- and tells the tale of their next adventure.

A new magic has made itself known in Waterdeep, small milky spheres holding a single perfect illusion to be cast into the mind of the user like a dream. As word of their existence and addictive power spreads, various factions struggle to exploit, control, or contain them. The struggle has deeper consequences than any of the participants expect, however, and soon ancient prejudices, noble pride, and some very nasty reptilian assassins enter the picture. It all adds up to a ferocious storm for Danilo, Arilyn, and Elaith, battered and tossed as they solve the mystery and face personal demons along the way.

I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone that the dream spheres are a form of magical drug and that the struggle over them is essentially a struggle for domination or defeat of a drug trade. It could be easy to turn this device into a thumping anti-drug message (this is your brain... this is your brain on dream spheres...) that would totally dominate the story, but Elaine very neatly avoids this. The plot is far more character driven with a surprising depth. Danilo and Arilyn's relationship stands on a cusp -- will their two worlds of city intrigue and wilderness necessity continue to keep them apart? Elaith, a rogue elf fallen from grace, struggles with both his past and his future -- can he be redeemed or has he been irrevocably consumed by evil? Danilo knows that Elaith swore friendship to him, but what of Arilyn's suspicions that the rogue elf is somehow behind some of the events in the dream sphere trade?

New characters work themselves into the web of the story as well. Danilo's half-sister, Lilly, is caught up with the sly and greedy barmaid-thief turned noble heir, Sophie (Sophie's story is, in fact, something of a prequel to The Dream Spheres and is told in a short story called "Stolen Dreams" that appeared in the May 1999 issue of Dragon magazine). The great noble families of Waterdeep are in an uproar, each of them -- Danilo's mother, strong-willed head of the Thann family, included -- hiding something. There's a lot happening in this novel, but Elaine brings it all together with an expert touch. It's fascinating to watch as all of threads are drawn together.

There are two things in particular that impressed me as I read this novel. One is rather minor, but adds a great deal of flavour, and that is Elaine's attention to the detail in her fight scenes. Her descriptions of duelling aren't just a matter of parries and thrusts, but of shifting balance and careful strikes. When someone pulls out a sword in this book, pay attention!

The other thing that grabbed my attention completely wasn't so pretty, but it was something that really brought Waterdeep to life: the noble families don't like elves and they don't want elven blood in their lines. It's ugly and it's racist, but wow, does it make the characters human! Reading the fact (and its consequences as they developed through the story) took me completely by surprise. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it in a TSR book and I'm glad it's there. The Forgotten Realms may have evil organizations, terrifying dragons, and hideous undead, but that one bit of prejudice more than anything else takes the fairy tale edge off the setting and makes it that much more real.

From details of duelling and noble prejudice to the intricate knots of storyline, The Dream Spheres is really an astonishing blend of the simple and the complex. Clearly Elaine has a talent for mixing the two together and coming up with a fascinating, absorbing whole. It's also clear, from both The Dream Spheres and Thornhold that she has a knack for something else: setting up an ending that satisfies completely, but still leaves lingering questions and situations for further exploration. Just try to get through The Dream Spheres without it leaving a taste for more on your tongue -- more Danilo, more Arilyn, more Elaith, more Sophie...

More Elaine Cunningham, please!

Copyright © 1999 by Don Bassingthwaite

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of Such Pain (HarperPrism), Breathe Deeply (White Wolf), and Pomegranates Full and Fine (White Wolf), tie-in novels to White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing games. He can't remember when he started reading science fiction, but has been gaming since high school (and, boy, is his dice arm tired!).

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