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Poison Sleep by T.A. Pratt3.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundMarla Mason is back in Felport, but her troubles are far from over. Felport is once again crawling with, as one character describes it, “typical backstabbing sorcerer shit.” A young woman named Genevieve, with the power of a “reweaver” whose dreams can alter physical reality, has broken out of an asylum for insane sorcerers, and her dreams are wreaking havoc. Traumatized in her youth by rape, her magic has actually given substance to the nightmare image of her assailant. This villain, Reave, is now out to do the conquering-the-world thing, and is in league with yet another of Marla’s rivals, this one an ambitious but essentially cowardly mage who's been panicked by a prophecy and has enlisted a “slow assassin” — one who specializes in stalking his victims for years if necessary — to take Marla out.

Pratt’s second entry in this series is better in many ways than Blood Engines, though it has issues of its own. The positive: Marla gets to grow as a character, especially in that we get to see a softer side to her that could lead to her undoing. She falls under the spell of a lovetalker, whose powers of charisma and sexual irresistibility are off the chain, and she’s naturally torn between feelings of vulnerability and the intimacy she’s long denied herself. And though Pratt fortunately does not let this little subplot lead us down the road to paranormal romance ick, it also does bring us to one of the negatives: the resolution of this relationship is all too predictable. 

The story has an even sharper sense of humor this time, with a number of colorful supporting characters — the most entertaining of whom has to be the “chaos magician” Nicolette, whom most readers will agree deserves to get her own book — helping to make up for those from the first book, like Bowman, who are missed. There’s another extremely likable supporting character who suffers an undeserved fate, and while it makes me worry that Pratt is going to get in the habit of introducing great characters in each volume only to dispatch them coldly, it reminds us that there are always real sacrifices, often unfair ones, in fighting evil.

Some of Pratt’s concepts here, like the slow assassins, are cool, but not easy to swallow. The idea is that there’s an element of psychological torment in being hunted by one of these killers, in that you never know when — now, or twenty years from now — he will strike, and the stress of this will drive you mad before the blow is actually struck. Fine, but it seems to me that a lot of people would go on the offensive if they thought there was time to do so. Especially as the slow assassins seem to enjoy making their presence known to their victims. If they were utterly invisible and anonymous in their work like ninja, I might buy it a little more. Because contemplating being stalked by someone like that would be the mother of all freakouts.

Poison Sleep is, like its predecessor, lightning-paced entertainment that bodes well for the whole series’ becoming a major urban fantasy player. Again, the freshness of Pratt’s vision — the images of dark towers manifesting in the midst of a stormy midwestern city, of people haplessly sucked into a world of nightmare that is encroaching more and more upon reality — and his skill at action and tossing in surprising little plot twists elevates his work past that of nearly all his contemporaries. And while this series is essentially shaping up as pure escapism, there is a theme to this one.

There is validity to the general criticism that using sexual assault as a female character’s tragic backstory has become a lazy trope, the topic handled, more often than not, in a manner more exploitive than sensitive. I’ve known a number of women who are rape survivors, and what they suffer psychologically and emotionally can only be imagined. Some manage somehow to get on with their lives after a while, others hang on to the trauma for years and years. To see such experiences cheapened in fiction must only add insult to injury.

I believe Pratt treats the subject respectfully, for all that it might be said he ought to have written Genevieve’s character differently altogether. For Genevieve to begin her own process of healing — which is not necessarily the process that will work for everyone in the same situation — she must realize that the only power her assailant still has over her, years after the event, is that which she gives him. It’s her own power that has transformed her attacker into the monster Reave. The use of dreams in the plot becomes more than just a nifty Lathe of Heaven-inspired gimmick. Dreams and especially nightmares are the things that keep alive the memories we most wish we could forget. The question finally hinges on whether Genevieve will find the courage to confront her own nightmares and say to them, “You no longer have power over me. I have power over you.” 

Followed by Dead Reign.