Dead Sleep was not the book I was expecting it to be, yet I’m reviewing it favourably anyway.
I first found this book after the author got my attention by following my blog on WordPress (indie authors take note, this does work for your book’s visibility) and when I saw its cover it ‘promised’ me an adult book in the sci-fi and horror genres. I say ‘promised’ here in inverted commas because authors and cover designers often talk about what a cover ‘promises,’ but it can be a little objective, as was the case with Will Swardstrom’s debut novel. And my perception turned out to be wrong: it’s a YA novel, but it can also be read comfortably by adults, and fits into its genre without lashings of King or Barker-esque violence and cursing. Therein lies the first compliment – I wasn’t disappointed despite realising from an early stage that this novel wasn’t what I imagined when I saw the cover.
Will Swardstrom has written effectively for the YA audience, and yet I devoured this book in 5 or 6 sittings, as an adult reader who aside from The Hunger Games doesn’t really touch YA often. It’s a quick read but isn’t simply action. There were times when I felt like I was getting a history lesson aimed at school-age readers, but I was always told an effective story as part of this, rather than just given facts. I’m walking the lines of flattery here but what the hell: that’s the mark of a good history teacher, and the author is himself a school teacher who has brought his day job into his authorial voice quite effectively. I’m jumping to conclusions I know, but the style of this novel did make me wonder if the author deliberately wrote a book some of his students might enjoy if they happened to find it. There’s a familiar touch of ‘my school life was complicated’ surrounding the main character’s backstory, as well as a school prom being used as the event behind a tension-build around 2/3 of the way through the novel.
Will Swardstrom was also a journalist like the main character, and has created a character who garners a fair amount of reader sympathy without simply being an avatar for the author himself – Jackson Ellis is very much his own person during his novel, even if he does seem a little too conveniently enamoured with the female lead of this story at times. But then, there’s plenty about Kristina that would intrigue most male readers, if not attract them in slightly odd ways.
Books about characters who see the future are hard to write, because visions have been done to the death since they appeared in early religious texts and invaded science fiction later, yet this story doesn’t feel like a copy of anything. There’s a standout moment when Jackson Ellis gets a revelation about his powers that felt refreshing after a lot of narrative where this character seemed highly self-aware. On the antagonist side is Donnie Cloyd, a character who would have fitted in well with the Clive Barker or Chuck Palahniuk ilk of deeply disturbed antagonists has this been written for adults (and yeah, I’ll admit that’s perhaps the one time I felt like the book was stretching for the horror territory I was expecting but then didn’t quite get). Despite being the villain of the piece, there’s a humorous story behind Cloyd’s name and at times his reactions paint him as a quirky lunatic rather than a chessmaster or Anton Chigur (No Country for Old Men) style of unstoppable monster.
Its hard to say where the science fiction comes into play in this novel without spoilers, but I liked the ideas at work here. Dead Sleep was an effective blend of genres that kept me reading until reaching a satisfying climax, even if it did feature one dreadful movie-style line that made me laugh and roll my eyes in equal measure. Perhaps the biggest curveball in this book wasn’t the surprises dished out to Jackson Ellis but in how during the climax the story did begin to shift into the more adult side of the horror genre. Not full on enough to take it out of YA, but with a good helping of wince-material nonetheless.
There are a handful of overly familiar tropes in Dead Sleep, but the skill of the narrative and writing makes them forgivable as they are in most other books like this – in particular the mixture of 1st and 3rd person (often falsely labelled a must-to-avoid in writing workshops, and here’s a book that demonstrates why I think those writers who avoid experimenting with narrative shifts often miss out on some nice variety.) Will Swardstrom has taken a risk on ideas most readers will have seen before and made them his own. Dead Sleep is an admirable novel, and let’s remember it’s a debut. I get the feeling bigger things are still to come from this author.