Book review: Doors of Sleep by Tim Pratt

(cover image courtesy Penguin Australia)

ARC courtesy Angry Robot Books – release date 12 January 2021 in UK and 4 May in Australia.

The possible existence of a multiverse, an infinite string of worlds in which life is the same, but very much not too, in its expression, is, for many people, an entirely alluring idea.

To think that out there somewhere exist endless possibilities for life, a great many of which bear no resemblance to our own reality, is appealing in a world where everything seems perpetually, drably the same.

For Jaxony Delatree, a man condemned to travel to a new world every time he falls asleep or becomes unconscious, the multiverse is, however, a curse of sorts, each journey, as documented in Tim Pratt’s Doors of Sleep, one life-altering further step away from his home, his family and friends and any sense of reassuring permanence.

His peripatetic existence is not of his choosing either, the result of meeting a woman in his professional capacity as a social worker who is there one minute and gone, quite mysteriously, the next.

Any idea that the multiverse is a gloriously unexpected kaleidoscope of the new and the exciting and different has long ceased to hold any appeal after three years and over 1000 worlds, and while there are moments of quiet reverie and the thrill of discovery can still make its sizeable presence felt, the reality is that Jaxony aka Jax, whose companions are usually fleeting and too easily distracted or lost, often feels lost, alone and very far from home in the gorgeously-named, though poetically-authoritarian, Realm of Spheres and Harmonies.

“I hesitated at the thought of returning to those memories, which I shy away from even in this diary. I finally said, ‘There have been a few [companions], though some only stayed with me for two or three worlds. There was a woman I loved, who got lost and left behind. A scientist who helped me a lot, but who betrayed me in the end, and I had to run away. A little boy I saved from a bad place, and took to a better one – I was glad to find him a home, because it was hard, traveling with someone who needed me to take care of him so much.'”

When we meet Jax, who has become a consummate survivor who can find food and water anywhere, who has been given a beneficial virus by someone which acts as a universal translator for him, and who knows his ways around the stimulants and sedatives necessary to extend his presence in or hasten his departure from a particular world, he is a man beleaguered, someone who tries to find the small joys where he can but who is also rapidly running out of any sense that his is a good and charmed existence.

Then he meets Minna and later Vicki (or Vastcool Class Crystal Intellect Three Three Three), whose exact nature is best left to the reading but whose presence in Jax’s life provides the emotional anchor he has long craved and so desperately needed, and who become even more critically important when a Big Bad turns up, one of Jax’s old companions, and embarks on a comprehensively evil plan to mould the multiverse to his own hideously authoritarian design.

While the existence of a nemesis does give the narrative some extra impelling grunt, the truth of the matter is that exciting though it is, not simply because of the action it generates but the great moral quandaries it throws up, Doors of Sleep gets along quite beautifully without it too.

That’s because this vibrantly emotive novel is, at heart, an exploration of humanity, primarily the good – Jax is a kind and decent man who doesn’t fold into himself, tempting though that might be, but does what he can to help others such as free a race of fabricated beings from dependence on long-departed masters – and occasionally the bad, and how even when life seems perpetually, gloriously wondrous, that we still need connection to other people or life soon feels empty and hollow, no matter how exotic the locale.

Tim Pratt (image courtesy Angry Robot Books)

Told through Jax’s eloquently insightful diary entries, Doors of Sleep is a gently told story of one man finding himself very alone, and then surprisingly not, and how he discovers that worlds he now inhabits one after the sleep-inducing other, might be part of something far bigger and greater.

It is also fantastically, enthrallingly imaginative in a way that excites and delights you as you wonder how one author can come up with so many dizzyingly different possibilities for the expression of life.

Jax goes from worlds where cloud forests provide a meditative place to rest and recoup (or mourn, as needs be), where gentle giants roam and where bird-headed people live lives of quiet luxurious perfection or where bucolic paradise holds sway (though with a darker, hidden truth behind it.)

He also comes across worlds of ruin clad in colonising crystal, others subsumed beneath life-stopping ice or one where mechanical spiders have taken all life and reduced it to an extinct nothing.

These cited worlds are but a small selection of the utterly beguiling array of places that Pratt takes you to, locales rich in sustaining possibility, others lost to the predations of death and hope long extinguished.

“(Oh. I stayed awake and did not travel because I do not have to go to sleep all the way at once. The brain has two halves, did you know? I made it so I can let one half of my brain sleep while the other is awake, and then switch. Some animals do it and I can do what some animals can do, when I make the effort to make the changes inside. I am sort of slower and not as bright when I am half asleep, but I can respond to dangers, and more importantly, being half asleep does not make me travel. It is a helpful thing for a spy to be awake as long as she needs to be.)” (Minna)

Pratt brings these worlds alive so fully and completely, sometimes, masterfully, in just a paragraph or two, that he infuses Doors of Sleep with the feeling of a glittering, astonishing travelogue, reminding us that even though Jax is largely inured to the riotous differences he witnesses – but importantly, not completely, meaning the sense of wonder has not wholly departed him – that they are profoundly, fantastically fascinating.

And the perfect setting too for a battle between good and evil, which, it will not surprise you to learn may take different forms on different worlds but which is, very much alike in its capacity to either uplift and nourish, or enslave and destroy.

Doors of Sleep is many good and wondrous things – it is exquisitely well-written with a perfect balance between raw humanity and spine-tingling action, imaginative beyond belief, offering up worlds so uniquely not of our own that you can’t help but get lost in them (just don’t get too far from Jax; you’ll find out why) and proof that the multiverse is an amazingly diverse place to tell an enrapturing, multi-layered and emotionally resonant story.

But most of all, and this is what will grab your heart and soul very quickly, it is winningly, insightfully and relatably human, a novel which knows its way around a thrilling narrative but never forgets that even the most exciting stories need richly-expressed humanity at their core and are all the poorer for its absence.

Doors of Sleep has humanity and thoughtful musing on the human condition in bountiful abundance, and while Jax may visit world upon brilliantly or alarmingly different world, this is never lost sight of, with the need for connection and relationship always paramount, proving that no matter where you end up, you always need to feel that you matter, to yourself, and just as importantly, to others.

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