For my last review of 2020, I’m stepping into the multiverse with Zaxony Delatree as my guide, in Tim Pratt’s Doors of Sleep. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Angry Robot.
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Every time Zax Delatree falls asleep, he wakes up somewhere new. Slipping between realities as he sleeps, Zax is an unwilling explorer of the multiverse who attempts to make the most of his affliction by helping those in need. But a dangerous enemy is on his trail, pursuing him in a way he thought impossible and determined to unlock the bloodborne secrets of his multiverse-hopping abilities – by any means necessary. So begins a game of cat and mouse across hundreds of worlds, a game with the highest stakes imaginable.
Opening in the techno-utopian setting of the Dionysius Society, it quickly becomes clear that Doors of Sleep does not lack for imagination. Altered humans party away, with wings, hooves and other cosmetic modifications on display, as recreational drugs are passed around with abandon, all inside the aerial domes which make up a playground for wealthy youths. Meanwhile, the planet below is preyed upon by an unknown entity known as “the Adverse.” Don’t get too used to this setting, as Zax is crashing hard from exhaustion; sleep – and a new world – beckon. Fear not, however, because Pratt just absolutely refuses to run out of ideas for new locations.
Worlds with mysterious, long-absent creators. Worlds of uplifted animals. Dead worlds, space stations, dystopias, utopias, post-scarcity worlds, nightmare cities of stalking creatures… Doors of Sleep is a treasure trove of ideas in terms of its settings alone, and that’s before we even come to discuss the finer details and the characters themselves. Each world Zax and his loveable companions visit is another opportunity for a sub-plot, whether it’s helping the local populace overcome a hardship or attempting to outwit Zax’s pursuers. Many of these worlds feel like there’s enough going on to have their own spinoff story, so deft is the worldbuilding.
Zax’s former role as a harmonizer – essentially someone who mediates between disagreeing parties – means he is not only driven to resolve conflicts, he’s actually good at it. He would much rather solve problems with discussion rather than violence, or, if discussion fails, some good old-fashioned cunning, which makes him a very relatable character. He isn’t perfect by any stretch, but he also isn’t irritatingly naïve or slow to grasp situations.
Of course, a great aid to Zax’s situational awareness is the linguistic virus he was deliberately infected with by a previous travelling companion. This functions in the same practical sense as the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, allowing Zax to speak alien languages rapidly, and is one of the many entertaining narrative workarounds to his unusual situation – particularly as the nature of the virus means he can pass it on to others easily. He’s hardly James Bond with a gadget for every situation, but he is resourceful and as prepared as he can be. Just the simple action of restocking his supplies provides endless variety; sometimes he must forage for food and water in a wilderness, on other occasions he has to work out what the local currency is. And let’s not forget, every world has different technology for him to get to grips with and make use of.
As useful as gadgetry can be though, it pales in comparison to Zax’s travelling companion Minna. Able to adapt to her surroundings rapidly thanks to her unusual biology, she is practically a walking laboratory, and proves her extreme usefulness from the off. Additionally, she is an absolutely charming character, enraptured by the prospect of adventures with her friend Zax and the opportunity to escape her grim reality. Whilst they don’t always see eye to eye on everything, particularly with regard to how best to deal with Zax’s adversary, they clearly have such affection for each other that it’s impossible not to get invested in their friendship. Others who join Zax along the way – whether friend or foe – are also excellent characters in their own right, but Minna outshines them all with her matter-of-fact reasoning and her gentle philosophising.
Its relatively slim size belies just how much Doors of Sleep has to offer. It’s a well-crafted, entertaining slice of escapist science fiction with not a word wasted, an action-packed adventure across a multiverse that promises much and delivers on every count. Hugely enjoyable.
Doors of Sleep is published by Angry Robot, and comes out on the 12th of January 2021. You can order your copy through this affiliate link.