Tim Pratt’s Prison of Sleep completes his duology oif a multiversal story of a man who travels to a new universe every time he closes his eyes.
Zax, or Zaxony more properly, has a problem. A new problem. His original problem, as detailed in The Doors of Sleep have been moderately solved. He can control his need for sleep, and thus the involuntary slipping through of worlds. He has found the love of his life, whole and complete, thought lost to madness. He’s made allies and friends, and managed to start to make sense of it all. Until, of course, a cult attacks, scatters his allies, and threatens not only him, and his, but the infinity of worlds.
This is The Prison of Sleep by Tim Pratt.
The novel introduces a second, alternating point of view in Ana, the inamorata that Zax lost, and then found again at the end of the first novel. A lot of Ana’s chapters, though, are written as recollection of her story, explaining what happened after she was lost, and how she was able to reconnect with Zax. This does give the reader a lot more context and a feel for Ana as opposed to the glimpsed memories that Zax shares in the first novel. Instead of being an unreachable, perfect quest Dulcinea for Zax, she is a character in her own right, with her own goals and strengths. The disadvantage of this approach, though, is that in general, a good chunk of this book doesn’t propel the forward narrative of the plot at all, merely catching up the reader toward a present that eventually interacts with the mainline plot.I am not entirely certain this structure for the book works quite that well, although if Pratt was trying to show the separation of the two lovers by having them separated in time as well as space by the trick of this narrative technique, then he was entirely successful with that trick. In any event, it is welcome to see how travel through the multiverse could work besides Zax’s original model.
As far as Zax’s story itself, it switches from the “Flight to Forever” mode that the original book marked, and is a more directed journey on his part, and eventually turns into an inevitability as he finds himself in trouble with the newest threat to him. The Cult of the Worm, the “real enemy all along” from before the beginning of the original novel. Unlike the Lector, though, the Cult of the Worm as far as its members are much less interesting as characters. In the first novel, The Lector was a true Master like villain, a character with personality and drive to spare. In this novel, it is only The Prisoner (of the titular Prison of Sleep) that really jumps out. If Lector was The Master, the classic Doctor Who analogy for The Prisoner to go with is almost certainly The Black Guardian.
I will refrain from going into the Prisoner’s plans, methods and goals too deeply here, but the novel does darken a bit, a notch, from the bright heroic light SF of the first novel as a result. But in general, this is a pulpy Good vs Evil story that might seem “simplistic”, but there is a notable lack of moral greys here. There is an attempt at moral complexity in one “episode” (to use the Doctor Who term) but that is quickly dismissed with. There are debates among the Companions about what is to be done but in general, there is Good and there is Evil.
The novel keeps some of the strong strengths of the first novel, and a reminder of why I read and enjoy multiverse fiction. In often short visits, or even just a few well chosen words tossed off, Pratt creates a sheaf of worlds that spark the imagination. We don’t see much of these worlds, or any worlds, really, something that the author himself lampshades in dialogue in one of Ana’s chapters. But what he excels at is the invocation of entire worlds and societies in the briefest of spaces, providing a canvas that is largely left to our imagination, but giving us the tools for that canvas, that space.
We do get a new Companion for Zax in the narrative and that would be Zaveta of the Broken Wheel. If we are continuing the Doctor Who analogies, and they do work so rather well in discussing this series, Zaveta is the Leela (4th Doctor Companion) for Zax, and is rather ferocious and dangerous in hand to hand combat. She doesn’t understand much technology, at first, but proves adaptive and ready to learn, just like Leela. Zax’s superpower is not that he is a super genius (like the Doctor) but that his social abilities and skills make him allies and friends everywhere, even unlikely ones. He doesn't, as Davros once accused the Doctor, of "fashioning his companions into weapons", they do that very well on their own, thank you very much. Zaveta, like the other characters, shows the variability and viability of a variety of characters to travel the universe with. If I might editorialize, one thing that the current Doctor Who hasn't tried much of, and I think it really could, would be to have companions NOT from our modern Earth.
In the end, though, I think, looking back on this and on The Doors of Sleep, the two novels quite frankly feel like an artificial division of a longer narrative. Coincidentally, this reminds me of another multiverse book series, the first two novels in the Hugo Finalist Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross, The Family Trade and The Hidden Family. That was really a single narrative split ungainly into two books and the books suffered from its arbitrary and abrupt division. I would say that readers interested in Pratt’s work, or in multiversal fiction with the tone of Doctor Who will like these two books, but they should buy and read them together as a set.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for providing a wider point of view in Ana, giving balance to the narrative.
+1 for a dense and chewy set of worlds and adventures for Zax and Ana to adventure through
Penalties: -1 The post-denouement sudden plot twists feels a little rushed and forced.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10
Reference: Pratt, Tim The Prison of Sleep [Angry Robot, 2022]
POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.