REVIEW: The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale
Back in the day The Dream Hunter was one of my favorite Kinsale titles. I don’t remember where I ranked it, but it may have been as high as third, after Flowers from the Storm and The Shadow and the Star. Still, I picked this up again with a bit of trepidation. My rereading of Seize the Fire was marred by discomfort at racial stereotyping of Arab characters. Given that The Dream Hunter is partially set in the Middle East, and that the heroine grows up there, would there be problematic depictions in this book as well?
The (unsatisfying) answer is: I’m not sure. As with Seize the Fire, I feel too close to the book and too fond of it to view it with truly neutral eyes. For me, the problem with judging a book I feel a strong affinity for is that the characters feel real to me in a sense, and thus I’m more distanced from the author and her choices. The characters and situations feel more to me like they simply are what they are. I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out; it’s just how I experience it.
There were no characterizations in The Dream Hunter that were as problematic as the one of Mustafa in Seize the Fire. There was contrasting of Arab and English cultures, but I didn’t feel that one was posited to better than the other. Much of the central conflict between the hero and heroine had to do with his longing for the freedom he felt outside of England (and away from his family) and her longing for what she perceived as the civilization and safety of England. Each thus idealized the object of their desire, the other’s culture (though the heroine is not truly Arab). Neither of them are “right” as to the superiority of either culture; it’s less about objective truth than internal need (and damage).
Arden, Lord Winter, is recently returned to England from travels abroad. He is restless and adventure-seeking, two qualities that frustrate his aristocratic parents, especially his stern father. The fact that Arden is an only child and heir makes his rebelliousness all the more galling to his father. After a frosty encounter between the two at their London club, Arden impulsively accepts the request of two gentlemen to hark out for the Arabian desert in search of a legendary mare called Shajarr al-Durr, the String of Pearls.
Arden encounters the heroine, Zenia, while attending funeral services for the infamous Lady Hester Stanhope in her mountaintop fortress in what is now Lebanon. Zenia is the illegitimate daughter of Stanhope and Michael Bruce, the dashing younger lover that Stanhope sent away years earlier (in the book, Stanhope sends Bruce away to hide her pregnancy from him). Stanhope and Bruce are real historical figures, though Zenia is not. I’m on record as not loving real people being used in this way (weirdly, or perhaps not so weirdly, the more recent the people actually existed, the more it bothers me). Stanhope was a fascinating figure in real life; she doesn’t come off well here at all. Which may be fair to her and accurate to her personality – I don’t entirely know – but having her mistreat a fictional daughter still feels somehow unfair.
Anyway, Zenia has disguised herself as a Bedouin lad named Selim and Arden accepts the disguise. The two flee in the middle of the night when the compound is attacked by looters. Zenia wants to find a way to get to England. Arden wants to find the String of Pearls. He more or less strongarms Zenia into crossing the desert with him.
Zenia/Selim is an odd combination; she’s incredibly fearful and apprehensive about the dangers they face (as opposed to Arden, who is very much the annoying laugh-in-the-face-of-danger sort), but she’s also competent and knowledgeable about what it takes to live in the harsh desert conditions. Together they make their way through the worst of the desert, and grow close. But trouble catches up with them and they are parted.
I was going to spoiler-mark the next bit but I realized I can’t talk about themes central to this book without talking about things that happen far past my usual spoiler-mark point. So, be warned, SPOILERS AHEAD.
Zenia and Arden are captured and sentenced to death. One of their captors points out the obvious – Zenia is female. Arden has more or less been sublimating his feelings for Selim/Zenia, treating her like a precious companion (he calls her his “wolf cub”) but refusing to recognize her true nature. While awaiting execution the two make love (as Zenia says, “What difference does it make?”). They end up being rescued, but their captors follow them and in the battle that follows, Zenia believes Arden dead.
Suffice to say, he’s not. But he doesn’t show up in England for a couple of years, by which time Zenia is known as Lady Winter and is ensconced in the family manor with their daughter, Elizabeth. These changes require some adjustments on Arden’s part, adjustments he doesn’t handle very well.
I loved both Arden and Zenia because they felt so real to me, but I could see one or both of them driving a reader bonkers. Their personality conflict comes to a head around Beth, and I was torn between seeing both of their perspectives and thinking both of them were, each in their own way, shitty parents. Zenia – fearful, paranoid Zenia – is insanely overprotective of Beth, a position that is looked on with approval by Arden’s father, who was insanely overprotective of Arden when he was a child. Arden’s rebellious spirit is implied to be a revolt against his father’s parenting style, though I thought much of it might’ve been Arden’s inherent nature.
Meanwhile, all poor beaten-down Zenia has ever wanted was a home and safety. She endured a capricious, abusive mother and harsh time spent in the desert with the Bedouin (sent there by her aforementioned abusive, capricious mother). She threw in her lot with Arden because she had little choice and found his fearlessness both terrifying and compelling. Above all, she wants to keep Beth safe – not just from the accidents and illnesses of the era, but from the sort of trauma that she was subjected to. Arden comes and upsets her carefully ordered life. She also doesn’t know how fearful to be about their fake marriage and how much power Arden may have to take Beth from her. I really felt for Zenia, even when she frustrated me (and she did frustrate me).
It’s fair to say that overall I was a bit more Team Zenia than Team Arden, maybe because I know what it’s like to be the anxious one and how someone else’s blasé attitude, rather than calming you, can make you feel like you have to be doubly anxious to make up for their lack of concern.
I also felt the book was tilted in the direction of favoring Arden’s parenting style. I get that Zenia’s version of motherhood was strangulating; on the other hand, when Arden essentially decides to play hooky with Beth and in doing so scares the shit out of Zenia, his father, and half the staff (who are dragging the lake for them when he finally decides to appear), I didn’t think that “irresponsible parenting” was too strong a phrase to apply.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t love Arden as well. One thing I love about Kinsale heroes is that many of them, viewed from a distance, seem like typical historical romance heroes of the era: handsome, dashing, sardonic loners. But they each have so much inner depth, as well as qualities at odds with their exterior appearances. In Arden’s case, he may be a famous globe-trotting adventure-seeker, but he feels shy, awkward and uneasy in his own skin. Even his relationship with his father has unexpected dimensions that come to the fore late in the book in a very touching scene.
Arden and Zenia are the type of hero/heroine combination that are mean to be both opposites (I noted a long time ago that their names start with letters at the opposite end of the alphabet) and yet complementary. Beyond that, the two are actually similar in some ways. Again, it’s here where Zenia has to give a bit – acknowledge the wildness in her (that she fears so much because she has seen how it went hand-in-hand with self-destruction and rage in her mother). Arden has less of a struggle – the main concern is that he will *stay* if Zenia gives in and marries him for real.
Suffice to say, I really love The Dream Hunter, still. The prose, plot and characterization are all top-notch. Kinsale even manages to make me understand what Arden loves about the desert, and I am not a desert person. My only quibble is the vague sense that Zenia’s POV is given short shrift, but I may be oversensitive because I loved her so much. My grade is an A-.