Book Review: Prison of Sleep, by Tim Pratt

This week, I’m reviewing the sequel to one of my top ten books of last year. Tim Pratt’s Doors of Sleep impressed me with its breezy narrative and loveable characters, but will Prison of Sleep be able to repeat the trick? Read on to find out!

When we last saw Zax Delatree, he had just rediscovered Ana, the love of his life, who promised to fill in some of the blanks for him. Like why she wasn’t still a gibbering wreck after accidentally viewing the horror between realities, and exactly what her and her compatriots needed him for so desperately. Now, Zax, Ana and their friends and allies are scattered across the multiverse, on the hunt for – and being hunted by – a deadly cult whose mission could spell even more destruction than Zax’s old enemy the Lector.

Throwing us straight into the pursuit, Zax gives us some early foreshadowing and cryptic references to the events that have befallen him as he tracks a cultist across realities. As with Doors of Sleep though, it’s not just Zax who writes in his journal, with chapters from Ana’s perspective alternating with his. Ana is there to provide context for why the two have become separated again, but also to explain what happened to her after she was accidentally dragged across the multiverse while awake – normally a sanity-shattering experience. As it stands though, Ana’s recovery is an issue that’s brushed off fairly quickly, and for many of her chapters she’s narrating what happened as she followed behind Zax in the first book. With Zax off elsewhere having new adventures, it’s a little like we’re jerked back and forth between the past and present, and Ana’s chapters often seem like little more than a rather long winded way to recap what has already happened in the previous book.

Conversely, the events of the latter half of Prison of Sleep seem to happen all in a rush. Moments of tension and seemingly inescapable situations are dissipated or wriggled out of respectively almost on the next page, all whilst enormous amounts of exposition are doled out. Two new villains are doing the rounds, one of whom is given little in the way of characterisation, and there are various complicated plans and counterstrikes being formulated constantly. A big reason why Doors of Sleep was so much fun was that it didn’t get too bogged down in trying to explain the why of everything, and it feels like the opposite approach is being employed here –  there’s a great deal of wearisome exposition, as well as some rather clunky deus ex machina employed to get out of many of the situations the characters find themselves in. It’s as if the first book was a fun adventure and this one is half sequel, half accompanying appendix.

On top of all this, the charming companions that Zax picked up in Doors of Sleep are largely absent here; it’s an odd choice to construct a loveable found family in one book and then separate them for the next. New companion Zaveta is entertaining enough – she has a great line in Thor-style dialogue, being an enjoyable barbarian fish out of water in pretty much every situation – but Minna’s absence is felt keenly. We see glimpses of her, as Ana recounts her own trailing of Zax and his companions, but these only serve to make us pine for her even more. Zax’s desire to solve conflicts without resorting to violence still makes him endearing, but we don’t really get to spend enough time appreciating his approach thanks to the dual timelines and expository storytelling.

With its uneven pacing and erratic plotting, Prison of Sleep feels more like a compromise than a conclusion. There’s still some entertainment value to be derived from Zax’s adventures, but with the best will in the world(s), it’s difficult not to come away feeling underwhelmed.

Prison of Sleep is out on the 26th of April, published by Angry Robot.

Currently reading: Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, Serhii Plokhy
Currently listening: Diabolical, Destruction

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