Today I am reviewing Through Dreams so Dark (Rai Ascendant #1) by Angela Boord…and I maybe got carried away, as aside from a deep dive post I think this might be the longest review I’ve written. And I haven’t come close to encaptulating just how much this chonky book achieves, and how much I loved it.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Sergei’s mother sacrificed herself to get her family across the Iron Curtain. Now it’s Sergei’s turn to save her…even if he has to cross realities to do it.
Sergei is determined to put his broken family back together, no matter the danger.
Not-rats and bugs hiding in his walls, listening to his conversations? He can live with that. The shadowy government organization trying to dig encoded information out of his nightmares? He’ll play along to learn what they know about his mother.
If he has to destroy his college career, his love life, and the best friendship he’s ever had—with his roommate Cam—he’ll do that, too, if that’s what it takes. He’s the only one who believes his mother is still alive.
Nobody else needs to get hurt if he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing.
But however hard Sergei tries to keep his double life a secret, Cam still shows up to save him whenever he’s in trouble, like Cam has some kind of magical sixth sense—a sense that keeps them bonded together no matter what. And when Sergei finally breaks through his dreams into a world where monsters lurk and reality changes on a whim…where having magic carries a death sentence…the stakes of this game could be far higher than Sergei wants to pay. Now it’s not just his life on the line—he’s dragged people he cares about into danger with him.
He thought he could risk himself alone. But will his single-minded mission to find his mother be worth the price everyone he loves has to pay?
Stranger Things meets epic fantasy in this portal fantasy set in a world of ever-shifting conspiracy and quantum magic, where reality itself can’t be trusted, and family isn’t just about who you’re related to.
I will be honest this is one of those occasions where it was the cover that did it. I’d seen some talk about this one, but it was seeing the cover that immediately elevated this book to a must read – it’s just so striking. The premise was fascinating too, although I would be the first to admit that portal fantasy is a subgenre that I’ve only dipped my toes in so far, but I can say that this one was nothing like what I had semi-expected in the best possible way.
Now it has to be said off the bat, that Through Dreams so Dark is a massive book. A true chonk of chonks, and alongside that size, it is very much a slow burn book. It demands your focus, your ability to pay attention to all the different threads, and the subtle hints that link one thread with another…and ten others; and it takes the time to build up those threads, the layers upon layers of characterisation. On the outside it might seem like an intimidating read, but oh my goodness, is it worth it! I read Through Dreams so Dark while travelling down to Bristolcon, and it pulled me completely out of where I was sat on the bus and firmly into the world(s) that Boord was bringing to life, and I couldn’t put it down. I ate up those details, that slow but steady ramping up of everything, the unfolding connections that might have seemed confusing at the start but began to make sense as the characters moved forward, learned new things, made new connections, and it stuck in my mind afterwards and triggered a very quick reread because I wanted more time in this world and with these characters.
In a certain kingdom, in a certain land, there lived a boy who dreamed of snow and guns.
In another kingdom, in another land, a woman chose to begin her story by getting properly drunk.
I absolutely have to start properly with a look at the worldbuilding, because as with everything about this book, it is multi-layered and compelling, and Boord does such a fantastic job of making both worlds – as well as the space in between – beautifully, vividly realised. Also, since it is me, there has to be a bonus point for the map at the beginning of the book, and also a shoutout for the inclusion of not just a glossary (although I will say that context informed me for all the words while I was reading, but it was a great inclusion all the same), but also a pronunciation guide for names.
If we start on this side of the ‘Lake’ we have an almost typical college town in the US, in the shadow of the USSR and the cold war and all that entails. This gives us a grounding, an understanding – and Boord takes that and twists it on end, because while we may have the elements of a spy thriller, with government organisations involved, and a family that had fled trying to remain hidden – it is apparent from the beginning that there is far more going on.
More going on.
Really that should be the tag line for this book, because if you were to slice into any part of this book, you would find more than you see on the surface. It doesn’t take long for us to get a peek beneath that surface, enough to tell us that not everything is as it seems, enough to hint at things to come, but not enough to tear down that curtain straight away.
“You won’t remember much of what we do, Seryozha, but you’ll remember the important parts. You’ll remember enough.”
The use of a ‘familiar’ or rather more familiar setting on this side of the Lake was an interesting choice and serves multiple purposes. On the one hand, that familiarity and understanding of how things should work, mean that the things that are strange and out of place stand out a little more, like that thing you see in the corner of your eye and turn around just to find nothing there. It also allows the focus to be on the characters in this place, because the world is one we recognise. And yet at the same time Boord breathes life and character into this world, from looking at it through the eyes of immigrants, to moments and memories with the characters, to seeing how life has shaped the characters – there are so many important character and plot moments that happen in this setting, and while the worldbuilding is simpler here, it shapes them all the same.
And the scene with the blue sky and the trees and the prairie grass sucked them under, him and Cam and Maddie, wrapping around them, filling up his ears and eyes and mouth, until it was just like water and it was suffocating him, drowning him, for the second time that day.
The scene where these realities are breached, and we finally get into the real meat of the story is one of the most visual and visceral scenes in the entire book. It’s the kind of scene that you don’t need to close your eyes to imagine and has shivers down your back.
I also love that the ‘portal’ such as it is, is a lake. How many of us have looked into a pond or even just a puddle, and at the reflection of the world and looked for differences? Or imagined jumping into a really deep one as a kid and wondering if you would jump through to another world? Boord has taken that link, that reflection and made it into something special. And it’s not just a portal or a mirror, it’s a pathway, a memory, a time capsule that captures the past, present and future of all places, and looks at possibilities. And the fact that it is something natural, something that could be found in any possible world just makes it seem all the more powerful – and makes for truly beautiful imagery.
The world on the other side is where Boord’s worldbuilding really shines, and here we see the science-fantasy of the experiments Sergei endures, the attempts to breach these realities gives away to epic fantasy. We have a world with multiple cultures, a rich and complicated history, and magic in various forms (and limitations, and societal restrictions). It would be easy enough to make this reality magical in comparison to the familiarity and outward normality of the other side of the lake, and yet the author has not rested on her laurels – and as powerful as the events and development on the other side was, it was the chapters firstly with Ináwé and later where the main focus shifted to this world that were my favourite.
‘You still needed to be aware enough for the spirits to carve your memories out of you and put them on your body. If you got too drunk, you were as likely to wake up entirely covered in memories as you were to have none of them made flesh.’
The magic, and especially the use of and relationships with spirits were absolutely my favourite part of this world. I also liked that it was so built into the world that it was part of everything from history to relations between the different people, to the wall, even down through the economy (legal and illegal), it was so integral to the world that you couldn’t imagine it or the story without that aspect. It also wasn’t a solution or a gimmick, in fact for all the power it gifted, it seemed to cost or threaten to cost more than it gave, which is one of my favourite ways for magic to be portrayed. It was also an interesting reflection on power, for example, healers were incredibly powerful in their own way, especially through what we saw with Jisel – and yet it was power that was a tool to others, healers were used when useful, but could be killed on the whim of those who had no magical power. It always makes me wonder how societies are built like that, and here we have it all, because Boord delves into the history with the betrayal of the wolf, the possibilities of things to come shown through the lake, to the machinations of those seeking more power.
Everything is more than it seems.
There’s also just the sheer variety of how ‘magic’ in its various forms can be used, from the forging of weapons, to healing, to rainmaking – each filling a different aspect of the world, moving pieces within moving pieces, and again this is where the slower build of this book pays off. Because Boord takes the time to explore these elements, to build them up, to show how society and therefore the characters interact with it, how paths are changed because of it – such as when Ináwé and Niko meet the sniffers. Yet, at the same time, it feels like we are just scraping the surface, and that as much as we through the characters have learned more about the world(s) and what is happening and has happened, and might happen, we are still only scratching the surface and more lies beneath the lake – which just makes me more excited for the rest of the series.
He swallowed, bobbed a nod. Couldn’t explain the way a bowl full of dumplings had ambushed him. He was just so fucking tired, and everything hurt.
Another aspect, that feels as though it is the glue that holds so much together – from the worldbuilding, to the characters, to the plot itself – is memories.
What is a memory? Is it something that is an integral part of you? Something that could be slivered away, like a knife peeling a potato, to leave something raw but with more potential underneath. Are you still yourself, if your memories are lost or changed, or somehow false?
Memories were such a prevalent theme in this book, and in so many different ways. There were historical and cultural memories, those built into tales and known history that were shared from person to person or entrenched in the laws and interactions of people in the present – like the Tarani and magic users. There were personal memories, both recent and far reaching, the moments that had shaped the present story – for instance I loved how memories were used to show how Niko and Ináwé, had come to the point they had in the present, and Boord uses it skilfully as a tool for further character development; but also the memories of events that had shaped the characters into the people they were now, from Sergei trying to make sense of what he remembered from childhood, to Ináwé, having memories of happier more innocent times when she was a child.
But memories like so much of this book are both more than that and less. They are malleable, fallible, a possibility. Yet, they also have the power to define – such as through the use of memory parlours where memories are tattooed on the skin by the spirits. They are also connections in and of themselves, we see that with Ináwé and Niko as their relationship shifts and changes, and through Cam and Sergei; and can threaten those relationships in turn when shifted or twisted or forgotten, such as with Sergei and Maddie, or even the memories he had of his mother.
In a way, I wish Cam had finished telling the story because then I would have known which set of memories was the right one. I need some kind of guide, and Cam’s the only one I can count on.
Which leads me to the heart of this book, and that is the characters. For all the mysteries and magic, the epic scale of the world, the portal, the twisting of realities and memories, it is the characters that bind everything together, and Boord’s skill with characterisation is second to none. This is why the slow burn of the book is needed, and why it is so effective, because that time is given to the characters both as individuals, but also to the friendships, the family bonds, and relationships that exist, that break, and grow throughout the book.
Sergei is our main character, his search for the truth of what happened to his mother drives so much of the book and pulls so many of the characters into his orbit. I will admit that he was also the character that took me the longest to warm too, not because of his character, but because how fragmented his sense of self and the world was. Yet, from the beginning I also found him one of the most compelling characters to read, and for the same reason that it took so long to connect, because I wanted to find the answers he was seeking, and answer the questions he had about what was happening to him and around him. I also liked that he was a messy, real human being, that we got to see the impact of the past and the present shaping who he was, that he was trying not just to find his answers or himself but trying to be better – for himself and for those around him. It’s impossible not to connect with a drive like that, and we spent so much time with him, that it felt like we were taking each step and facing each new discovery and challenge right there with him.
He’s just a friend, people said. Well, what the hell did friendship mean, if it wasn’t important enough to grieve when it failed?
Cam was an interesting character, and one of my favourites – and the friendship between him and Sergei is one of the strongest relationships in the entire book. Not because it is smooth or simple, in fact it’s anything but, but it was just so good to see a friendship explored so deeply as it traversed highs and lows, and challenges that could and did break things, only to be patched together. They were both incredibly complicated, messy characters, and neither one was able to fill the other’s gaps completely, they weren’t a cure for one another, but they were an anchor, a support, that was often more permanent and real than familial bonds. Cam’s path is all the more interesting, because he wasn’t searching for answers and he didn’t have the same sense of things as Sergei did, but he became involved and entangled as a friend and became deeper and deeper involved because he couldn’t and wouldn’t walk away despite everything he endured. Maddie was similar in many ways, but also different, her connection with Sergei was different and her relationship with Cam rode the gauntlet of dealing with an over protective sibling, to egging him on, to needing him (again the depths of these relationships). But, I like that she very much came into her own – not restricted to being a love interest or a younger sister – and that her relationship with both of them shifted and changed to reflect that, and the experiences they were having.
A man with dusky skin and blackberry eyes and blackberry hair, the color of crow feathers, leaned over her.
I have to admit though my favourite character wasn’t one of our main POV characters, but rather Yirek – a crow spirit. There was just something so intriguing about his role in so many of the characters stories, but also I adored how Boord captured his otherworldliness. He wasn’t human and that showed in how he spoke and saw the world and it’s possibilities, and yet at the same time she captured perfectly how human interactions and bonds had shaped him. I always got very excited when he appeared on the page!
I also really enjoyed Ináwé, Niko and Jisel as characters (and oh my heart at the fate of one of them, I knew…but I wasn’t ready). I think in part hey stood out the most, because they were showing us different aspects of the world, they were our eyes, our voices and our connection to the world. Ináwé was definitely one of my favourites from the beginning, her character voice was so strong, and what I loved was that she grew so much throughout the story in ways that I hadn’t expected from when we first met her, and she straddled that boundary of strength without being the ‘strong woman’, and I think of all the character threads, hers was probably the one that I was most individually invested in. Niko was nothing like I had expected from his first meeting, and he was an interesting point of stability in a cast of messy characters – not to say he wasn’t complex or messy in his own way, or in the path his story took, but there is something about a character who is so focused and defined by his honour and promises, especially in a world of so much shifting and changing. Jisel on the other hand, was a character I thought I was going to dislike when we first met him, even as I sympathised with the cost of his abilities and the situation, he found himself in and yet he grew on me so much as the story progressed.
Boord has created some truly wonderful characters in this book, and I have only touched on a few of them, and there are so many more that add so much to the story, and the threads of the characters. I’m also in awe of her ability to bring to life the connections and relationships throughout this book, not one of them felt inorganic or unimportant, and yes, this story is incredibly heavy on the character development and the exploration of these bonds – but I think that is why it works so well. These are characters we connect with, that we are invested with, and that raises the stakes in and of itself – and it is the characters that I am still mulling over after reading this book for a second time.
As mentioned before this is a slow burn, and Boord does take the time to delve into the characters – their pasts, their emotions and relationships, and really allow us to get to know them. This does mean that Through Dreams so Dark is for the most part a slower paced book; in my opinion it is both worth it and necessary to what this book is and does, because we need that depth, those connections to fully appreciate the threads that are coming together. And it must be stressed, there is plenty of action and tension, and there was never a point where it felt too slow or too convoluted, and I was never waiting for the next spike of action. Everything in this book is beautifully balanced and brought together in away that always spurred the plot and the characters forward, nothing is wasted, and the devil is in the details with this book. On top of that Boord’s prose is just wonderful to read, and she has a fantastic ability to paint imagery so vividly that you were utterly brought into the world she was weaving around us.
Through Dreams so Dark is a commitment. It demands – and deserves – focus when reading it, but Boord has made that so easy to give with captivating worldbuilding, compelling characters and a way of weaving together a multi-thread story in a way that feels like you are on a quest alongside the characters to make sense of everything. This is a story that pushes boundaries, that makes you consider what makes a person and more than that, what makes the connections that each person forms in the world, and what people can and will do for others when the situation calls for it. This book is epic in every sense of the world, and was one of the most complex, satisfying reads that filled both heart and mind; and I am so excited to see where Boord takes us in the rest of the Rai Ascendant series. If you want an experience, and to delve into the space between reality…and not reality, and you love big stories, with an even bigger heart then you should absolutely be checking out Through Dreams so Dark.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.