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Dreambound coverDreambound by Dan Frey is probably one of my favorite reads of the last twelve months. Told entirely through a series of documents—such as letters, emails, journal entries, interview transcripts, excerpts from best-selling novels, and even police reports—the novel chronicles a father’s frantic search for his missing daughter, a quest that takes him all across Los Angeles, into Fae-populated fantasy realms, and the fandom communities that believe in them. It’s a gloriously entertaining, structurally inventive page-turner—and certainly one of the best urban fantasy novels that I’ve read in a long while.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased. After all, like the adorably aloof twelve-year-old Liza Kidd, I too spent a good chunk of my teenage years obsessing over fictional characters, looking up conspiracy theories and alternative subcultures on the net, befriending strangers online who shared similar interests, and writing fan fiction as I waited for the next instalment of a beloved series to come out, all the while fervently wishing for magic, any magic, to be real. But for her father, the rational and cynical investigative journalist Byron Kidd, who prides himself on dealing only with facts, his daughter’s strange hobbies seem nothing more than a passing phase—that is, until she mysteriously disappears and, even after six months, the police come up short. This prompts Byron to take matters into his own hands (against the wishes of his ex-wife, who is advised by her therapist to simply let go and move on from the tragedy), as he follows the esoteric clues in children’s books, tracks down ancient tomes, interviews reclusive celebrities, and confronts the notion that there’s another hidden, magical reality, overlaid and coexisting with our own.

This journey also forces Byron to confront his own prejudices and weaknesses, including his neglectful attitude towards his daughter that eventually pushed her away from him, and his biases when dealing with people markedly different from him. This is most apparent in his dealings with Misha, an unabashedly nerdy Media Studies scholar who also hosts a successful fan website for a popular fictional series: she grudgingly helps Byron after she realizes he’s earnest about his search, and Byron comes to embrace the different aspects of fandom cultures, including getting a tattoo and dressing up in costume at a convention, with the hope of getting closer to his missing and estranged child.

But the stand-out secondary character is Annabelle Tobin, the secretive author of a best-selling fantasy series with tantalizing secrets of her own. She drove a bargain with the Fae to write books that became hugely successful; consequently, the Fae grow stronger, and more and more children (who are all fans of the books) run away from home and disappear under mysterious circumstances, beguiled by the promise of a better world, Liza among them. In a series of funny twists, Byron not only lies, manipulates, and blackmails people to get their interviews and extract information—at one point, he also breaks into Tobin’s luxurious house in search of a portal that would enable him to cross over to the other side. All of this is creatively recounted via those mixed media elements, creating unexpectedly comedic undertones.

As an epistolary novel, Dreambound is somewhat reminiscent of Jo Walton’s Among Others (2011) and Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett (2023), both of which are told through a series of diary entries, but Frey’s novel really pushes the limits of the form to include fan fictionics, folktales, newspaper clippings, reddit threads, scripts, scholarly articles, tweets, and text messages as part of its polyphonic narrative. Such an experimental strategy (though not new in itself, just see Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves [2000]) not only eschews the need for multiple-POV chapters or an omniscient narrator, but also plays with the idea of the book itself, making it not just an assemblage of pages that tell a linear story, but an art-object composed of a collection of curious documents, or even a puzzle that the reader must slowly piece together to a satisfying conclusion.

Moreover, Dreambound, with its nested fairytales and book excerpts, also challenges notions of authorship. As a non-fiction writer, Byron takes copious notes and carefully maintains a personal file of relevant documents pertaining to the missing kids, while Annabelle Tobin is yet to turn in the completed draft of the sixth and final title in her best-selling fantasy series to her editor/publisher. On the other hand, Byron’s daughter and countless others enthusiastically engage with the positive aspects of fandom culture by writing fan fiction or making art inspired by Tobin’s works, which are in turn based on folktales and archetypes that have existed in our collective unconsciousness for thousands of years—and whose authorship or origins cannot be so easily traced.

In fact, while works of art have always inspired other works of art, the notion of “fan fiction” as a non-profit activity that creatively engages with the source material is relatively recent, and predicated upon our understanding of copyright laws governing intellectual property as well as fair use doctrines. In many regards, fan fiction, by virtue of being free-to-read and easily accessible, may exist in opposition to the populist, profit-driven media franchises that are dependent on weaponizing nostalgia and delivering assembly-line, familiar, formulaic, sequel-baiting stories derived (through a series of careful licensing arrangements) often from a singular piece of creative work to a mind-numbed audience. The fact that such media franchises dominate most of our contemporary entertainment landscape (and the film studios that produce them are also impossibly determined to replace creative personnel with AI, and, failing that, pay them at sub-par rates) is particularly depressing and perhaps symptomatic of how capitalism has changed humankind’s relationship with art and authorship. Interestingly, Dreambound’s ending (spoilers ahead!) reckons somewhat positively with this grim reality—Tobin announces at the convention that she won’t be writing a sequel but will instead edit and jointly publish Byron’s investigative research as the last instalment, declares fan fictioniction to be valid, and acknowledges that writers have a responsibility to be “mindful” of the kind of stories they tell. Otherwise, she says, stories may “warp the world in ways we might not like” (p. 358). The book concludes with a rescued Liza writing fan fictioniction to resurrect her father (now a part of the Fae realm), drawing upon the archetypal power of stories to do so.

In this way, Dreambound is an exploration into the heart of storytelling and fairytales, as well as a commentary on how stories and their retellings can literally take on a life of their own—for better or worse. While plenty of fantasy novels play around with the conceits of a “book-within-a-book” and meeting the author of a fictional novel as part of the events of the novel itself (for example in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series [2003-2023] and Sachiko Kashiwaba’s Temple Alley Summer [2011]), Dreambound also explores the complicated relationship between consumers and creators, parents and their children, and devotees and the deified. Despite being loved and lauded by an army of fans, Annabelle Tobin’s actual personhood is initially disappointing, just as Byron Kidd is a disappointing father whose own callousness drives Liza far away from reality and into the fictional universe of her favorite book series, with disastrous consequences. (Indeed, my only gripe with this book is that Byron appears to be very steeped in his white privilege and is especially judgmental at times, particularly towards the homeless—which might make him a bit difficult for some readers to sympathize with.) But, more than the notion of our heroes failing us because they are flawed humans too, Dreambound emphasizes that stories are so much more than their creators, and yet are reliant on the collaboration of both the writer and reader to create their meaning—or, as in the case of fan fictioniction, on the reader/consumer also filling in the role of the writer/creator.

Dreambound has many antecedents, and I’ve already mentioned several. My own favorite aspect of this novel was its unabashed engagement with fandom, in which regard it is somewhat similar to YA novels such as Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (2013) or Francesca Zappia’s Eliza and Her Monsters (2017). These novels delve into the chaotic lives of fan fictionic writers who have to balance real-world responsibilities with internet stardom. Here, Liza’s room is a shrine to her preferred musicians and book series; the older Misha is pursuing a PhD, having turned her hobby into an academic pursuit; and fans from all over the world come together at conventions to find community and celebrate their favorite works of art, ensuring their continued afterlives. In other ways, Dreambound reminded me most of The Unwritten (2009-2015), a comic book series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross that also dealt with the consequences of characters from a best-selling children’s book series coming to life, and explored the links between imagination and manifested reality. Meanwhile, the novel’s incursions and portals also evoke Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a magical boarding school novel that tempered the childlike longing for Narnia­-like adventures with a more mature perspective. And I think Frey is aware that stories involving abductions by the Fae and changelings have been done to death in recent times—which is why he chose to explore the recursive and intertextual history of these stories, tying it to how fan fictioniction too references and reinterprets the source material in every iteration.

Dreambound is hilarious in places, poignant in others, and paced like a well-plotted thriller—a delicious blend of the magical and the mundane. It took me back to my childhood and teenage years, to the kind of fantasy books I’d voraciously devour back then, and to the fandoms I continue to participate in. Dreambound is perfect, then, for readers who like stories about the Fae, fantasy worlds, and fan communities, or are simply in the mood for a fun, epistolary narrative. And amid all that, it is also productively experimental and engaged. Reader, I enjoyed it.

Archita Mittra is a writer and artist with a love for all things vintage, whimsical, and darkly fantastical. She occasionally reads tarot cards, has more hobbies than she can count, and loves blueberry milkshakes. She lives in Kolkata (India) with her family and rabbits. You can check out her blog here and say hi on Twitter/Instagram.
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