Book Review: Garrett Calcaterra’s Dreamwielder

17279464._UY2700_SS2700_[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]

In a world in which it is dangerous to be magic and a new realm of steam, metal, and tyranny is being built by its evil emperor, young Makarria has been forbidden to dream. The Emperor Guderian and his powerful sorcerer lackey Wulfram have spent their reign eradicating and diminishing leagues of sorcerers and sorceresses across the land in an effort to protect against a prophecy foretelling a royal sorceress who will kill the emperor. When Makarria comes fully into her new power as a Dreamwielder — the most powerful but also most rare magic — she must flee and the events that ensue send her headlong into the arms of danger, of the prince and princess of Pyrthia, of maturity and power.

Initially, Garrett Calcaterra’s Dreamwielder seems to promise a fun, winsome story of growing up and learning one self along the way along the lines of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy. But, quite suddenly and quite violently, we are dropped into a fast-paced mature plot that seems to be calling to the likes of George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy political epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. There are a slew of characters and kingdoms to keep track of, as well as some promising court and military intrigue. The events randomly leap character to character, point of view to point of view, and place to place, throughout the book, to the point that I was meeting so many characters that I wasn’t sure if I was getting to know them individually. Plot twists ranged from overly predictable to refreshing wrenches in the plan.

As the protagonist of Dreamwielder, Makarria is an alternately precocious and somewhat tepid lead character. We meet her while she is still considered and treated as a child by her parents and grandfather; they coddle her and she spends more time daydreaming than helping on the family farm. When danger threatens and she and her grandfather must flee, it’s a wonder Makarria can respond to the resulting adventures and interactions with strangers with any semblance of calm or preparedness. For the better part of the following plot, she leaves decisions to those older than her — Grampy, Princess Taera, Siegbjorn — and complacently lets them protect her while she randomly does headstands and worries. She doesn’t experiment with her newfound power as a Dreamwielder until it is more dangerous and Princess Taera, in an attempt to protect the younger girl, has expressly forbidden her to do so. Then, suddenly, as if a switch has been flipped, Makarria steps forward and refuses to lie low when others’ lives are in danger. She makes a lot of mistakes in the process, but she responds to the resulting misfortunes and plot twists with clear-headed cleverness and fortitude. Dare I say it, but she had a lot of potential to develop as the story was closing. Though she got on my nerves for much of the beginning of Dreamwielder, I’d be interested to see what more character development Makarria undergoes in Calcaterra’s sequel Souldrifter. 

At the same time that Dreamwielder barrels forward, fast-paced and “richly detailed,” as author James P. Blaylock blurbed, it also stumbles on its own attempts at intricately new but traditionally fantastical world building. Calcaterra builds a world for us with grand gestures at an “Old World” at odds with our characters’ “New World,” geographical places separated merely by a mountain range and centuries of standing at odds with each other. Why don’t the worlds intermingle? What prompted their separation? Why mention the Old World at all if it affects our characters’ current conflicts so little? At the same time, traditional elements of the high fantasy genre — kings, magic, fleeing across kingdoms on horseback — clash with steampunk-esque menaces of war machines and the destruction of nature. I absolutely see what the goal was in including both magic and technology in the plot, but something was missing to help me reconcile the two. (Also, why is magic so feminine, so linked to a woman’s maturity and “instincts”? And if it is so feminine, why are there male sorcerers who think the threat of rape would make a female sorceress more “potent”?) Much of the rest of the world building was left to characters briefly mentioning the origins of the New kingdoms, legendary sorceresses and Dark Queens, and deity-like figures (or concepts?), as if this would help readers delve into the world. Instead, I felt overwhelmed and like I needed more of the rich details for which Dreamwielder was praised.

Despite these slight snags in Calcaterra’s high fantasy debut, his overall juxtaposition of youth and maturity with power and magic were interesting aspects of the plot. The characters in Dreamwielder (except maybe the airship captain Siegbjorn, who just seems along for the ride) easily fall into the separate categories of older generation and younger generation. The older generation — Grampy/Parmo, the king of Pyrthia, Emperor Guderian, Makarria’s parents, Talitha, and power-hungry sorcerers — tells the younger generation — Makarria, Prince Caile, and Princess Taera — to lie low, that they are too young, too immature, too powerless, too inexperienced. At the start of Dreamwielder, Makarria’s parents and grandfather are waiting for her “moonblood” (yes, even a woman’s period must be shrouded in fantastical terminology), insisting that when she reaches full feminine maturity, she will “grow out of [her power] soon enough.” Similarly, Caile and Taera’s father belittles their decisions and ships them off to places that would be a little less dangerous. The older generation, then, sweeps the seeming children under the rug. But it is maturity and forced growing up — thanks to adults ignoring the children — that strengthens the younger generation: Prince Caile comes into his own as a politician and a military hero when left to his own devices; Princess Taera learns to understand her visions and her role as heir to the Pyrthian throne; and Makarria, of course, learns to use her powers and save the world. Interestingly, by the end of the book, the older generation that sought to solve problems with war and violence and the tamping down of magic that has quite literally been exterminated, and it is a new generation, potent, magical, and unashamedly mature, that will rebuild the kingdoms.

All in all, Garrett Calcaterra’s Dreamwielder is a high fantasy epic bordering on its own edge of maturity: Makarria and her royal young friends’ world is still developing in Calcaterra’s attention to detail and plot, and the heroine herself shows potential for character growth as well, though she’s well on her way to coming into her own. In a world shrouded in soot, political tyranny, and violence, one little girl who has been forbidden to dream and rushed to grow up will dream and change the world.

Garrett Calcaterra’s Dreamwielder is currently available in ebook format with Diversion Books.

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