I want to save the world with pretty clothes: The Dream Crystal by Mark O’Bannon

Title: The Dream Crystal
Series: The Dream War series
Author:  Mark O’Bannon
Published: 2011, independant
Genre:   fantasy
Source:  eBook received from author for review
My Rating: 1/10

It’s Erin O’Neil’s dream is to change the world “with pretty clothes of her own designs”. But then she gets kicked out of fashion school because the clothes she designs are too beautiful and enchanting. Then she gets kicked out of her house, because her parents have never really liked her. Then she gets kicked out of the dojo where she’s been practicing Kung Fu since she was a kid, because the dojo master wants her to go and fulfill her destiny.

Erin feels like her life is now “a smoldering ruin” but then she finds out that she’s not really Erin O’Neil but Aisling, a faery changeling. The faeries find her and tell her who she really is, then take her to their home, The Land of Dreams, along with her only friend, Genevieve. Aisling resolves to find the real Erin, who is being held prisoner by the Shadow People, and take her back to her human parents. But it won’t be easy, because the Shadow People are at war with the faeries.

The Land of Dreams is so named because the faeries use magic based on thoughts – “If you can dream it you can do it” is the motto they’ve snatched from Walt Disney. Using their minds, faeries can summon or conjure up what they need: food, electricity, weapons, warm winds to dry them off when they’re wet. They can also transform themselves into other forms or sprout wings. But mostly you see them use their magic for clothes. If you read this book, it’s the obsession with clothing that you’ll remember most.  Because Aisling is a fashion designer, she’s always taking note of people’s outfits, and designs and conjures up clothes for herself and others. Every chapter and scene comes with new outfits for all characters involved, and if they’re dissatisfied with their clothing or get wet, they change again. And you get to read about every single dress, shirt, sandal and boot. Here’s a taste:

“She wore bright red leather pants, a white tunic with flared sleeves, and black boots.”
“pink and black striped tights, a black half shirt, mini skirt, and pink platform shoes. A short pink leather jacket lay on the bench next to the pipe organ.”
“Aisling wore a green blouse with flared sleeves, a thick white belt with a silver buckle, white tights and a pair of shoes, also white. Topping off her outfit, like an accessory, were large wings, now stretched out in alabaster brilliance, and bathed in sunshine. She smiled at the idea of designing outfits that matched her wings.”
“a pair of white leggings under a blue and green plaid shirt, open toed, high heeled sandals with blue and green plaid straps, and a white fur coat to keep out the cold”
“She wore an exquisite dress with a short layered black skirt over a longer purple skirt, a black corset with purple ribbons over a gray blouse, striped black and purple leggings, and combat boots with buckles up the sides.”

What’s very odd, in a boring kind of way, is that the faeries’ clothes are all human clothes. A passing reference is made to odd things like mushroom hats, but otherwise it’s all figure-hugging dresses and leggings with boots. It’s not only clothing the faeries have borrowed from humans, but their lifestyles too. The Dream Crystal faeries go shopping (one of the first things Aisling and Genevieve do is go shopping for skinny jeans), use electricity and go to church (did I mention they’re Catholic faeries?). At one point a faery takes Aisling for supper at a sushi restaurant. A sushi restaurant! In the land where faeries live!

Of course everything is done with magic and no one needs to work for money, but you expect fantasy to be more, well, fantastical. The Land of Dreams has the potential for something outlandish, but instead the faeries live the very tame, easy, mundane lives that an unimaginative, well-behaved twleve-year old girl might think up. It’s sunny and pretty, everyone is beautiful, everyone is friendly (except for the token rival, Morrigan), everything is made quick and easy with magic, pretty clothes are just a thought away, and you can fly.

There is a plot, but it’s often easy to forget about, and very difficult to believe that it’s important, because the faeries are always having parties and picnics. It’s almost a parody. At one point the faery King mentions that faeries are falling into shadow for being too proud and passionate (they’re Catholics, remember). Pride and passion are deadly sins that attract the evil Shadow People, thereby playing a role in the war. Shortly after the King’s warning, the Queen banishes some faeries to the shadows for “failing to repress their desires, their pride and their passions”. Then, in the next chapter, they have two fashion shows.

I don’t understand how things like fashion design would not involve pride and passion, and the faeries certainly do not live the simple lives that their beliefs would demand. More importantly, if they are at war, why do they have time for fashion shows? This odd mixture of supposed seriousness and random frivolity is common in the novel. For example, a massacre is mentioned casually among other pieces of conversation while the characters are relaxing in a Jacuzzi overlooking a lake. Another tragedy is followed by a church service in a Cathedral, but it’s not to mourn the lost faeries – it’s a something like a Valentine’s Day celebration. At one point Aisling and her friends defy the Queen’s orders, and Aisling decides that the best way to react to this and to the war is to relax, so they all go and play a game of tag among the sunflowers. It’s hard to take any of it seriously.

Aisling actually criticizes the faeries for being frivolous, but she is no better. Her mission to rescue Erin is also sidelined by clothes and parties. In fact, I can’t think of a more superficial, deluded character. This is a 19-year old girl whose great ambition is to design pretty clothes for the whole world. Her idea of paradise is “a place full of sunshine and flowers. It’s a place full of pretty clothes and friendly people – a world of fantastic beauty. It’s a place where dreams come true.” She’s under the impression that, in the normal world, “no one ever gets what they want” and “there’s a war against beauty. Attractive people are always the brunt of cruel jokes. They’re never taken seriously”. Her idea of a nightmare world is one full of “dreary people content to wear uninteresting, ugly clothes”. Aisling believed she “could have changed the world with [her] fashion designs”, but being thrown out of fashion school and accidentally setting her portfolio alight means “the world will remain a gray place forever”.

Those last two quotes really sum Aisling up – ridiculous, deluded, unbelievably arrogant yet totally defeatist. Since when is the whole world dull and grey, and how could it be saved with clothes? How could the whole world be doomed because she got kicked out of school and burnt her portfolio? How can you define paradise with pretty clothes and a dystopia with ugly ones? If anything, the pressures that fashion places on people (women in particular) can be nightmarish, and we’d probably all be happier if we all cared less about our clothes.

And since when is there a “war on beauty”? I might understand this if Aisling were criticizing the dominant standards of beauty, but she subscribes to them, as does the book in general. The very idea that beauty comes from clothes, shoes and make-up is the basis of beauty magazines. Aisling is contemptuous of those who don’t make the effort to comply with this aesthetic. In chapter 1 she describes a waitress who “could have been beautiful” but spoilt her looks with “large tattoos, multiple body piercings, and excessive body hair. It was as if she was trying to be as ugly as possible”. Later in the novel, Aisling sees her friend Aoife looking “unusually plain” in simple clothes, with unwashed hair and a wart on her nose. The plain look is just an illusion Aoife is using to prevent male faeries from hitting on her all the time, but Aisling is disgusted, remarking that “it’s wrong to destroy beauty”. I shudder to think what Aisling’s opinion would be of someone who really was plain, overweight, didn’t have long glossy hair or had no interest in fashion, but luckily for her the waitress was the only one in the novel. Even the evil Shadow People are hot and well groomed.

Aisling also looks down on people who she thinks are not passionate or driven enough. She refuses to give a homeless man spare change because she “won’t help anyone that’s given up on life” and she criticizes the changelings who have become bitter because the other faeries want nothing to do with them. This contempt comes from a girl who falls into a bottomless pit of misery when faced with even small setbacks. When Aisling states that “Doing the impossible” has always been her motto I wanted to throttle her for such ludicrous hypocrisy.

Aisling’s terrible character might not be so bad if the novel had a good, solid story to fall back on, but it doesn’t. It’s chaotic and confused and as a result, boring. The faeries and their world are based on Irish mythology, but the novel is set in America, and you also get Japanese and French faeries. Aisling assumes the faeries are Catholic because they’re Irish, and religion plays a role in the plot, but why should mythological creatures have a human belief system? Intense fight scenes come out of nowhere (giving Aisling a chance to show off her Kung Fu and sword-fighting skills). Important plot developments are followed by events and dialogue that serve no purpose. It’s also hard to understand exactly what the two sides (faeries and shadows) want. We’re told that faeries fall into shadow for being too proud and passionate, but then we find out that they also fall for not having dreams or not loving anyone. Pride, passion, ambition and love are so closely intertwined (you take pride in your work, you love passionately, etc.) that I don’t understand what the ideal state is and how you achieve it. Are dreams good or bad? The novel eventually makes a weak attempt at clearing this up, stating that selfish dreams are bad while good dreams “whisper the love of truth”, but that makes no sense in practical terms and no explanation is given.

At the centre of the conflict is the Dream Crystal, a small crystal that is apparently the source of all the thoughts, dreams and ideas in the world. I don’t even want to get into the details of how absurd that is. Anyone who possesses the crystal holds the power to control thoughts, but this is never demonstrated so it’s unclear what role the crystal really plays in the plot and how it can be used. We’re told that dreams will die if the crystal is lost but what exactly does that mean? The word ‘dream’ is used in multiple ways, to refer to ambitions, hopes and the dreams you have when asleep. It’s not always immediately clear which one is being referred to, so it can be a little confusing.

The novel is just very badly written. Besides being so chaotic in terms of plot, it’s packed with descriptions in purple prose, usually about the scenery or whatever terrible depression Aisling is suffering from. There are also lots of odd, often senseless phrases:

“A dark scowl lit Morrigan’s face” (my italics)
“My hair may get in the way, but I can still see what kind of person you are.”
“Clang!” (in inverted commas during a sword fight, as if someone were yelling out sound effects).
“Wind accompanied the sound, knocking hair into her face.” (I don’t know how hair can knock into something, but this expression is used several times).

I hated every minute I spent reading this. I would never have gone past chapter one if I hadn’t agreed to review it. If I’d seen the cover first, I wouldn’t have agreed to read it at all. They tell you not to judge a book by it’s cover, and that’s partly true in this case, because it’s not faery porn as those two girls seem to be suggesting (it’s PG-13 at most). But it’s still trashy. I should have just written it off with a short review, but after making what felt like a gargantuan effort to get from the first page to the last, I felt that I deserved a chance to vent at least a few of my frustrations.

Normally when I don’t like a book I try to imagine who it might appeal to. This time I’m stumped. Even if you would take great pleasure from the countless outfit descriptions, or you think Catholic faeries in combat boots sound cool, it’s still so unimaginative, confused and irregularly paced. I’m sorry to say it, but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.

Buy The Dream Crystal



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